Supermarkets are so 20th Century

Once again there is a possibility that someone will develop a supermarket in Llangollen. Once again a few people get seriously wound up in support or in opposition. And once again the prevailing mood seems to be one of resignation. A belief that if the one of the big supermarket chains wants to build in Llangollen they will, so why argue? Its the sort of fatalism we used to sneer at in other nations; Britain, and Wales in particular, was fiestier than that.

Supermarkets are very keen to promote the idea that they serve the community and provide jobs. But like any other company their primary duty, is to their shareholders. The only reason why a supermarket chain opens a store anywhere is because it will one way or another be good for business. If we in Llangollen believe that the interests of a supermarket’s shareholders coincide with ours we should welcome it, if we don’t we should oppose it, not just lie down and let them build what they want.

I am opposed, and whilst I’m pleased that previous proposals have been seen off by cunning deployment of wildlife concerns and world heritage sight lines they have only succeeded in preventing development on specific sites. The development lobby can keep coming back time and time again with modified proposals and different sites until they win. It’s time those opposed to supermarket development made it clear, we do not want a supermarket anywhere in or near Llangollen. At all. Not even if it’s invisible, underground and built to the most environmentally friendly standards.

The real reasons have nothing to do with rare butterflies or badgers. They are about the quality of human life.

Planning

One reason some people believe this development is inevitable is a belief that it’s ‘council policy’. Others tell you there’s a report that says ‘Llangollen needs a supermarket’, so the council have to permit one. Neither is true. During 2003 a consultancy firm Roger Tym & Partners carried out research into retail capacity in Denbighshire on behalf on the county council. The final report was published in 2006. It’s long and detailed, but if you read through to page 34 you find this referring to Llangollen, “… the Council should continue to secure a site for a new, larger supermarket than presently exists in the town.”

It’s a recommendation from a consultancy, based on research carried out eight years ago, and updated five years ago. It’s not law. It can be challenged. The county council accepted the report and use it to guide their decisions, but planning decisions are still taken individually not nodded through because of a report. If the people of Llangollen do not want any development the council is obliged to listen to their objections. Overwhelming public objection is a valid reason for refusing planning permission.

It’s the Economy

The latest proposal centres on Dobson & Crowther. Apparently their works is too big and too old fashioned for their business to flourish. Like lots of other companies they want to build a new modern plant on a greenfield site and sell the old site to the highest bidder. For them it’s the easiest option, it may be the only viable option, I wouldn’t know. The development lobby are deliberately confusing two separate issues.

It’s very likely a supermarket chain would be the highest bidder for the site, and obviously Dobson & Crowther’s management would be crazy not to take the money, unless we can convince the council to make it clear that planning permission will not be granted for a supermarket on that site. Dobson & Crowther can sell to someone else, or redevelop the site themselves.

Modernisation of a printworks is not a reason to impose a supermarket. And nor are the financial problems of any other business or property owner in the area.

A Hundred and Fifty Jobs

Think about that for a minute, in round figures 150 full time jobs is some £3m a year. Who really believes that just because a new supermarket opens the people of Llangollen are going to find, and spend, an extra £3m a year to support “new jobs”? A supermarket in Llangollen will compete with, and take trade from, existing retailers in Llangollen and surrounding areas. Local shops will suffer, and so will some in Wrexham and Oswestry.

For big retailers this is all about market share. If there are four supermarkets in, say, Wrexham and supermarket A opens a new shop in, say, Cefn Mawr, it will take trade from all the Wrexham shops, including that belonging to supermarket A. They don’t mind that, they can lay off a few staff, maybe transfer some, and over all they’ve increased their share. Supermarkets B, C and D are now anxious to win some share back by opening in, say, Llangollen, even if it hurts their Wrexham stores because it will hurt A in Cefn more. Unless of course A makes Dobson & Crowther an offer it can’t refuse.

They’ve played these corporate games right across the UK, and the result is obvious. Thousands of boarded up shops in depressed town centres and hundreds of identikit retail parks. If 150 are ever employed in a supermarket in Llangollen it will be because 150 fewer people are employed in other shops.

Supermarkets offer more choice

No they don’t. They offer lots of very similar products in confusingly different packs and sizes. They offer bundles and BOGOFs, coupons and loyalty cards all designed to maximise their profits.

Here in Llangollen we have: two butchers, two greengrocers, two bakeries, two deli’s, two newsagents – and two small supermarkets. We have a pharmacy, a DIY/Hardware store, an art shop, a craft shop and several more. That’s a lot of choice.

There are a few things you can buy cheaper in bulk in a bigger store. Mums complain about nappies, pet owners about pet food. Family packs of beans and bog rolls are cheaper in Wrexham. And many of us do buy these things in Wrexham.

Those in favour of a supermarket in Llangollen cite this as justification for building one. Even the Tyms report bases it’s assessment of our ‘need’ on the amount of money spent outside the county. But that’s a very narrow view of how we live. To Denbighshire CC in Rhuthun Wrexham is a competitor, to us it’s our local big town. Many Llangollen people work there, and visit a supermarket on their way back from work. Many have friends and relatives there and combine shopping with their social life. Some of us order online and have the heavy and bulky stuff delivered to our doors.

Online shopping is ideal for products that you don’t need to touch, smell or feel before you buy. It has revolutionised book selling, music and video. It’s the perfect way to order anything that comes in tins, bottles or packets.

I know, there are people without Internet access at home, but I bet there are very few without a friend or relative with it. And for them we have a library with plenty of free computers, helpful staff and even a training course. Driving, or worse still taking the bus, to an out of town supermarket really is the twentieth century way to shop. Buy your bulk stuff online and your fresh food from friendly knowledgeable people in Llangollen.

Be Positive

It’s natural to criticise and want things to be better, but beware what you wish for. Llangollen has a lot of good things going for it, we’d be daft to risk losing them in return for cheaper toilet paper and 50 varieties of pizza.

Tourism is the major industry of North Wales, and a major source of employment in Llangollen. There is more to being a tourism than scenery and catering. Ambience counts for a lot, and Llangollen’s is good. No-one wants to wander along a high street that looks exactly like the one they left behind. Ours is different. Where else in the UK do you see tourists lining up to take pictures outside a greengrocer’s shop? Telling their children, “We used to have shops like this when I was your age.”? They spend their money in the cafés and giftshops but a vibrant town centre is part of the experience.

Almost every day there’s a media story about obesity, diabetes and diet. But look around Llangollen, there are very few obese people, most of the seriously overweight are tourists. I did some supply teaching in Dinas Bran school a few years ago, very few overweight kids there.

The absence of a major junk-food retailer pushing Two-for-One offers on processed meals has got to have a bearing on that. Not to mention the number of people shopping on foot. Walk to the shops and two hundredweight of lager for £10 isn’t such a great deal.

British family cooking has a bad reputation, industrialisation, wars and shortages in the 20th century didn’t help, then in the 1990s the government thought it would be a good idea to stop teaching cookery in schools, and simultaneously destroy the traditional meat and two veg school dinner service. Foodie programmes on the TV don’t really help, but in Llangollen we have a great source of advice. Shopkeepers.

Ask a butcher about an unfamiliar cut of meat and they’ll explain what it is and how to cook it. Ask a greengrocer about two different types of apple and they’ll tell you the difference, probably make a recommendation and if you are regular they’ll give you a sample. Same with deli’s and cheese.

Your Choice

Democracy is the least bad form of government we’ve invented so far. If I’m in a minority so be it, Llangollen gets a supermarket and I put up with it or move away. Like maybe half the residents of Llangollen I wasn’t born here. I chose to move here because I like the town the way it is. Everyone else either moved here because they like it too, or if they were born here they stay because they like it better than the alternatives.

If people were starving in the streets for want of a supermarket, there would be an exodus. There isn’t, there are very few empty houses and the property market here isn’t much different to surrounding towns. If so many of us like the town the way it is, it’d be an almighty shame to let outsiders change it for the sake of their profits just because we can’t be bothered making a fuss.

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