A gloomy November Saturday morning in London, and a new type of outing for the Urban Repairs Club: a day trip to the Independence Day conference in Frome, Somerset.
What kind of places do we want to live and work in? Is there an alternative to so-called “big box” retailing? How do we ensure that regeneration and redevelopment include a central role for independent business and the interests of local communities?
With debate raging about the future of the High Street, the increasing dominance of the big four supermarkets, and the nature of our villages, towns and cities, this is a perfect time to discuss such issues.
For many of us, these subjects are matters of great urgency: in Frome, as in so many places, there are plans to redevelop part of the town, which sparked the founding of the pressure group Keep Frome Local, pledged to resist proposals for a giant town centre supermarket.
Now, after a vibrant and successful first two years, we want to bring to bring together – from our town and region and beyond – to share their experiences of campaigning, using the planning system, and lobbying local government; and to discuss the bigger picture.
This was the call to arms the Urban Repairs Club had been waiting for. Fired up by John Harris’s Guardian article the Club threw caution to the wind and invested literally pounds in a new full colour printing of our revised manifesto and a stall at the event.
As the train left Newbury (Home of Vodafone), finally leaving behind the London metropolitan economic area and heading into the West Country proper, the gloomy clouds blew over, the sun came out and a bright new day for British urban living felt promised. Like the special train to Glastonbury Festival, this was Great Western Trains heading out into the semi-mythical Wessex heartland, delivering us to The Big One.
Holding a national conference outside London or one of the main regional capitals is a brave but risky venture. A mini-coach had been laid on to transport delegates from the intercity railhead at Westbury to the venue. The initial numbers didn’t look promising. On the mini-coach, five of us delegates from London, with some no-shows. Harris later admitted at the conference that he had been “bricking it” at the low level of ticket sales with just a few weeks to go.
But in fact the conference was sold out completely, packed to the fire regulations limit with over 200 people, and the London delegates on the mini-coach quickly showed that what they lacked in quantity, they made up for in quality.
Frome (pronounced Froom, if you pronounce “oo” as in “oo Betty”, rather than as in “foot” (unless you are Scottish) – yes, it is a complete minefield), is one of those handsome, stone-built towns you get in the Cotswolds and Somerset.
Built on a steep Mendip hillside, the town grew wealthy in the 17th and 18th centuries as one of the main centres of the English woollens textiles industry. Like the Pennine villages such as Heptonstall visited in Expedition No.3, production was in the hands of independent hand loom weavers working at home in distinctive high-windowed upper rooms. Independent, nonconformist religion was also very strong.
Then, steam power came and Frome was completely eclipsed by the Midlands and North. Though it remained an industrial town throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, with a mix of industries including a major book printing works, without much local coal, no giant factories were ever built. The population remained between 11 and 12,000 for 140 years between 1831 and 1971.
This heritage means that the town has a fabulous architectural heritage of 17th and 18th century buildings, with a much greater proportion of the town having missed redevelopment in the Victorian and Edwardian eras than is usually seen in English towns. Symptomatic of this lack of 19th century improvement, an open sewer still runs down the middle of the street in Cheap Street. But now it is seen as a quaint and enticing feature of a picture postcard-perfect street (and so its perfectly clean babbling brook is).
Today, Frome is very evidently not just any old conventional well-to-do country town of the Tory shires, it’s a much richer mix.
There’s a strong flavour of the green, funky town. The resource of lots of interesting (and originally cheap to buy) old cottages has been attractive to arty and new ager types, and there is a thriving colony.
Meanwhile the working class West Country portrayed in Jez Butterworth’s play Jerusalem is also present. It’s a town that retains a few rough edges on a Saturday evening, and where the young single Mums pushing their buggies speak like Pam Ayres.
Thirdly, it’s been attractive to incomers seeking small town living within commuting distance of Bath/Bristol, and some gentrification has taken place.
It’s the kind of place, one imagines, where the real ale revival was easy to get going because real ale had never really ever gone away, and where the farmers’ market wasn’t hard to set up, because the local growers had always been around.
Crucially, it’s a town where, miraculously, the ordinary traditional independent traders and retailers survived long enough to start to become appreciated again, and to be actively defended by its community – natives and incomers – against the sudden and peremptory destruction of this proud heritage and rich present day mix by the supermarket giants. Channelling the independent spirit of their forebears, the electorate threw out the old town council because of the battle over a major supermarket development, and is now in the hands of a Frome Independents’ collective.
So, what next?
Report of Independence Day
The conference was held in the beautiful surroundings of the Wesley Methodist Church, Frome (great pics of the event here). Built in 1812, and restored and tastefully modernised in the 1980s, it is an exceptional example of Georgian church architecture. Seating two hundred, the venue was 100% full to hear the welcome from the Mayor of Frome and the keynote speeches from the first three of the galaxy of stars of the green/soft left assembled by John Harris: Andrew Simms, Fellow of the New Economics Foundation and author of Tescopoly, Neal Lawson, Chair of Compass and author of All Consuming: how shopping got us into this mess, and how we find our way out, and Rob Hopkins, founder and lead guru of the Transition Towns movement.
You would be hard pushed to assemble three people with a more well-informed or creative view of potential alternatives to the current neoliberal consensus – it would certainly be hard to do so from amongst elected politicians.
Over the past 25 years Simms’s NEF has put out a larger number of useful and interesting policy reports than probably every other political think tank combined; meanwhile, Lawson’s Compass is the only show in town for anyone on the left hoping to exert influence on a future Miliband Labour government. They have both paid their dues and are in the political game, but are very far from being establishment figures. Yet they have a kind of metropolitan gloss and speak the insiders’ language they need to use to be heard within the mainstream political/media complex. One sensed that this was a mild turn off for at least some of this grassroots audience.
By contrast, it was the mild mannered and unassuming, non-metropolitan Rob Hopkins who received a hero’s welcome from the crowd. Based first in Kinsale, Eire and latterly in Totnes, Devon, Hopkins’s Transition Town movement has achieved a remarkable grassroots take-off in only six years, almost entirely under the radar of the mainstream media. There are now over a thousand transition town initiatives, with a large and committed activist base rooted in their communities, that would in previous decades have been the bedrock of local party political activism.
Andrew Simms spoke first. Simms coined the terms “Tescopoly” and “clone town” to describe the outcome of the process during the boom years whereby the retail chains took over the English High Street. Now, he reported, many clone towns are becoming ghost towns: 1 in 7 High Street shops stand empty.
He described the “social glue” that independent shops provide for their local community: for example, in looking out for the elderly, and giving them a friendly word. With the massacre of local shops now in progress, NEF research shows that society will pay the price with lonelier, unhappier people. The Big Four supermarkets deliberately design their processes to make their staff so busy that they are afraid or unable to make time to have a chat to older customers; market economists call this a productivity efficiency.
He argued that the current crisis, which the establishment believes is deeper seated it likes to let on in public, is also an opportunity for positive change. He ended with a call to re-imagine the High Street as a place to be and do, and get together.
Neal Lawson spoke of how we have built an economy dependent on over-consumption by creating a people who find their freedom and wellbeing in shopping. He described the army of psychologists, marketeers, data-miners and lobbyists deployed by the retail giants to make this so (buying local and national government along the way), but admitted that ultimately we have conspired in letting it all happen, because over-consumption as freedom is seductive. But the Achilles Heel of this model is its need for continuous, endless growth, which is obviously unsustainable. Post-crash, it’s foolish to have no greater ambition than to restore the pre-crash economy. He was no revolutionary, he insisted, all he wanted was to restore some balance to our lifestyles.
Rob Hopkins brought news of a recent victory: Costa Coffee had been dissuaded from opening a shop in his home town of Totnes. He described Totnes’s resilience model for its local economy, and how opening up to the chains would undermine that. Totnes’s economic plan is to carefully and deliberately reduce its dependence on giant outsiders; this made the quote about the episode by the chairman of the South West Local Enterprise Partnership particularly risible: “Totnes should think of the signal it is sending to the marketplace”. Two fingers is precisely the signal that Totnes is trying to send to the City of London!
Last Shop Standing
The first streamed workshop session offered the choice of “The Future of Our Food Supply”, “Transition Towns: lessons from the leaders”; “Campaigning against Big Retail”; and “Local Business Fights Back”.
The Urban Repairs Club attended the latter, and was rewarded by three really excellent presentations from Nigel Dowdney of the Association of Convenience Stores, Catherine Conway of Unpackaged, and Graham Jones, author of Last Shop Standing: whatever happened to record shops?
Nigel Dowdney, a straightforward, slightly lugubrious Norfolk small businessman, told the story of the impact of a large Tesco on the little town of Stalham in the Norfolk Broads. Built on the site of the old open market in 2002, it was sold through the planning approval process as a scheme that would strengthen the existing town centre. Instead, footfall in the High Street fell by 54%, and 30 shops in the town closed in following 4 years, including the Co-op and Somerfield. Dowdney saw turnover at his convenience store, the Stalham Shopper, fall by 60%.
However, he decided that the business would have to survive, and so made it happen. Ten years later, he has adapted. He has built up Red Orange Ltd, giving convenience stores a chance to pool their buying power, and has become involved in Norfolk’s Buy Local accreditation scheme. He was one of a number of people at Independence Day who argued that independent stores could beat Tesco on price much of the time. Without putting words in his mouth, the essential argument was that once they have driven the competition out in a town, Tesco exploits its monopoly by putting prices back up.
Catherine Conway had a different story. In 2006, she set up Unpackaged, an organic grocery in Islington devoted to selling foodstuffs without packaging (customers bringing their own containers to be filled). She described how the original concept of the shop – about creating an alternative to packaging waste – had morphed over time into a wider concept of the role of an independent grocery in providing some of that social glue to its community described by Andrew Simms.
Every inch the highly talented and effective activist turned businesswoman, Conway described some of the skullduggery encountered as she worked to move her business into bigger premises in Hackney. Turned down for credit from the major banks, she described how she had crowdfunded some of the capital requirements of the move by borrowing from her own regular customers – a very hip business stratagem that had Nigel Dowdney boggling at the thought of trying that in Stalham.
Graham Jones showed a clip from the film of his book Last Shop Standing: the rise, fall and rebirth of the independent record shop. An engaging Scouser, Jones was a sales rep for a record company from the eighties through to the noughties. As such, he well knew the fascinating network of indie record stores across the country, each a legend to the young people of its own town. In the 1980s, there were over 2,200 indies across the country; by 2009 this had shrunk to 269. Jones expected this to rapidly diminish to zero, and decided to write his book to capture some of the great stories from the many interesting characters in the trade, before it was all gone.
Although the downloading revolution is widely discussed in the media, the main attrition actually took place in the era of the CD. It was the big supermarkets who destroyed the independent record shops, by piling high then selling cheap the chart topping hits of the day, at a price the independent stores simply couldn’t match. Several owners described how their local superstore was selling hits cheaper than they could buy them from the record labels themselves, leading to farcical situations where the shops were restocking by buying from Tesco, and being banned by store managers for their pains.
The record companies foolishly conspired in their own demise by supplying the Big Four at prices ruinous to their usual outlets, because for the supermarkets, CDs and music were only ever a minor sideshow. Cheap CDs, like cheap booze, were a loss leader designed to attract customers into the store. In music, building a local monopoly by driving out the competition was probably a secondary consideration.
With the downloading revolution and the “low value consignment VAT relief” mail order scam of recent years (where CDs were imported and then immediately re-exported from Jersey and similar offshore locations), the supermarkets have now virtually abandoned the field, maintaining only the thinnest selection of CDs in most stores. This is of course ruinous to the industry’s traditional means of developing new stars.
But recorded music, as the first retail sector to be hammered by the internet, is also showing signs of being the first to adapt to it as well. Independent record shops are staging a small comeback, as analogue vinyl comes back into fashion, and musos decide that they need the community and knowledge that the independents can provide.
So the story has something of a happy ending, and that suits Graham Jones’s sunny personality well. He’s now on tour with showings of the movie at independent cinemas and village halls across the country, introducing the film with a few stories and building the fast developing new indie record store community in places such as Frome.
The future of the town centre
Lunch was provided by local youth group Edventure in the church hall. Excellent information stalls had been set up by Keep Frome Local and its equivalents from Ulverston, Lancs/Cumbria and Ledbury, Herefordshire. The Urban Repairs Club stall did a reasonable trade with the manifesto featuring the nude cyclists being more popular than the Mr Pickwick one by some margin – notably, it has to be said, among women of a certain age.
The afternoon’s workshop choice comprised a teach-in by David Babbs of 38 Degrees on Campaigning, an interactive session on “The planning system: friend or foe?”, and the Club’s choice, a seminar on “Town Centres in 2050 and the future of shopping”, featuring Andrew Simms, Finlay McNab of Sustrans and Dominic Swords, Professor of Economics at Henley Business School.
Finlay McNab’s message was that taming traffic in the town centre is good business sense. His message that physical schemes that are cheap and cheerful, and done quickly, can still work exceptionally well, was illustrated with examples from New York City. The message got a bit lost in a packed room of feisty campaigners, who struggled a little to relate the Lower East Side to their own town centres.
Prof. Dominic Swords brought a jolt of realism to the proceedings, with a message to naturally enthusiastic activists from the dismal science: don’t be complacent that, just because its prescriptions cratered the economy, neoliberalist thinking will necessarily come to an end. The orthodoxy remains for more deregulation and “freeing up of the market” to get us out of recession – meaning, even freer rein for the big predators.
With a Business School futurologist’s eye he identified the three drivers of changes impacting on 2050’s High Street as being: the ageing population, more information technology, and a working population even more cash and time-strapped than today’s. His forecasts for IT sounded more like nightmares to this moderate Luddite.
Deliberately setting out to lay out home truths about the real world to an idealistic crowd, one wondered whether the Business Schools ever scenario-test flat rejection by the people of the dystopian futures they forecast for us.
Andrew Simms developed his argument from the morning session. The High Street clone town/ghost town we see today is the physical manifestation of the demands of a financial sector become too powerful and too greedy. But the wreck we are left with is a moment of opportunity for us to come in and create the communities we want – a new High Street not just where we passively consume, but a place to be and to do, and – literally and metaphorically – swap the tools we need to make useful things happen. He spoke of the NEF’s idea for “National Gardening Leave” – a new national four day working week, with people spending the fifth day working on community-building projects.
In the lively discussion session, the debate tended to focus on the themes of the parallel workshop sessions: what campaign tactics work, and, the local council, friend or foe? There were compelling contributions from those reporting back from the front line of live anti-supermarket battles. A faultline was apparent between those arguing for a strategy of working within political parties/the local electoral system, and campaigning to take control of the council, and those who have lost faith in conventional local politics.
A delegate from Mirfield, West Yorkshire brought a quick taste of the fighting spirit of Arthur’s Army to Frome. He argued trenchantly that fighting supermarkets through the planning system was a waste of time: the thing that worked was a consumer boycott. Picketing of the branch of Tesco that had opened in the former premises of the Black Bull, Mirfield, had meant that it was trading at 30% of its break-even level. It will close soon, and we will get our pub back, he promised.
The final plenary session featured John Harris, first chatting to Scottish food journalist Joanna Blythman, and then pondering the wider question of harnessing the energy of local supermarket campaigns to form a wider campaigning movement.
The interview with Joanna Blythman drove home the point that so many people come to the supermarket issue not primarily from a town planning or sense of place perspective, but from a “we are what we eat” food culture perspective.
There is a huge food activist scene composed of people coming from a number of points of entry: as consumers they may be gastronomes, environmentalists, defenders of traditional regional cuisines or diet faddists. Then there are the producers, who may be motivated by the love of good food and good husbandry, or of keeping their family farms and rural communities going, or may simply be trying to make a living.
They all form an avant-garde for a food revolution in Britain that has been genuinely mega. It’s a game that anyone can play, and which has percolated deeply through the aspirational classes. The power and reach of the celebrity chefs is quite some phenomenon.
Joanna Blythman’s bibliography shows how a food journey can become a political journey: her titles include The Food We Eat, The Food Our Children Eat, How to Avoid GM Food, and then(2004) Shopped: The Shocking Power of British Supermarkets. After a bit of shtick with Harris about seasonal soups, Blythman got down to some serious political comment, including her remarkable advice to any up-and-coming food producer: never, ever supply Tesco, because in the end they will always screw you.
A UK Town Centres Movement?
John Harris then moved to summing up, and floated his own concept of harnessing the energy of food activism, and “defend my local shops” anti-supermarket campaigns in different places across the country, and widening it out into a wider people’s movement for the rethinking and remaking of Britain’s town centres. His question: is it time for a UK Town Centres Movement, and, if so, what would it look like and do?
The packed church was treated to an electrifying intervention from Dave Chapple, socialist and trades unionist from Bridgwater Forward. Using oratorical skills both high and low that must have cheered all the ghosts of West Country preachers past dwelling in the church, he made a passionate case for widening out the campaign from retail to the defence of all manner of civic facilities and spaces. Bridgwater, a historic working class Somerset town, was being hollowed out, not just by the depredations of the supermarkets, but by the decisions of the police, the magistrates court and the local hospital to abandon the town centre and move to out-of-town sites on the by-pass. Centuries of civic history were being destroyed overnight for the most banal of reasons. It must be stopped. Any UK Town Centres Movement must be for the Bridgewaters of Britain as well as its Fromes. He sat down to the most spontaneous, thunderous ovation of the day.
Urban Repairs Club reflections on Independence Day
The discussions of the day’s themes continued at the George Hotel, Market Place, Frome and the Cornerhouse, Christchurch St East, Frome with the day’s organisers and leading lights. Dinner was enjoyed at UK Kebab of Bath Street, Frome. Then the Urban Repairs Club repaired to the Great Western Railway Staff Association clubhouse, Westbury, to ponder the full import of the day’s events, with the following conclusions:
The energy of the day proved beyond doubt that John Harris is on to something.
The logic of the City of London’s version of the free market is that the big four must relentlessly grow, acquiring those they cannot wipe out, until they each take broadly 25p of every retail pound spent in the country. They will merrily buy up the political system, dismantle the planning system, destroy historic towns, exploit the workforce and ransack the planet in pursuit of this necessary growth, and no doubt great damage will be done. But ultimately the project is doomed, because it is such an utterly bleak vision.
Deep down, people don’t want it, and if a standard is raised in opposition to it, people will flock to it. John Harris has raised the standard, in Frome. His next step must be to carry his message around the country, rally his support, and then march upon the capital. Aux armes, citoyens! In practical terms this means putting together a grassroots movement with political demands on all parties. Going further, it probably means putting a bet on a future Ed Miliband government, and trading some kind of grassroots support for Miliband at the next election in return for pledges of action from them after it.
A town planner would tend to say that if the big four are prepared to compromise on store format – replacing out of town monsters with High Street-based Metro or Local stores, for example – then the battle is won. The mood of Independence Day seemed to be pointing towards going somewhat further – perhaps a system similar to the alcohol off-sales licencing system, whereby the supermarkets would need a separate licence from the council for its various loss leaders aimed at putting local independent shops out of business, whether it be mags, fags, freshly-baked bread or CDs.
NEF and Compass have the political brains to make this possible. At Independence Day, Neal Lawson had expressed genuine disgust at the way Blair’s New Labour was bought by the big supermarkets. If the supermarkets scent a Labour victory at the next election, they and their lobbyists will be back, aiming to ensure that Labour’s policies benefit their interests. This time, it would be good if at least the takeover was contested.
The wonderful activists and entrepreneurs so evident at Independence Day will continue to do the amazing creative things that they do. They won’t wait for a political campaign to get started. However, they would do well to develop some kind of collective political umbrella, to protect and promote what they create.
The crisis in town centres genuinely is, in the old Chinese cliché, both a danger and an opportunity. The vision of a new British town centre is in place, and so are the working examples. Now is the time to spread the word.
As it is Christmas Eve, it seems appropriate to quote Johnny Mathis:
It’s all a dream, an illusion now/But it must come true, sometime soon somehow/All across the land, dawns a brand new morn/This comes to pass when a child is born.