Lesley Riddoch: Every little helps to keep high street alive

SUPERMARKETS may challenge John Swinney over the business rate hike announced in last week's Budget. I hope the finance secretary holds his ground - and not just because targeting Tesco beats bashing benefits claimants as a source of extra government cash.

Even voters glued to their points cards probably approve of asking Tesco, Sainsbury's and Asda to pay for putting other retailers out of business. It assuages everyone's guilt.

But Mr Swinney's supermarket tax levy will not be enough to change our shopping habits or save our rundown towns and villages.

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Already, there's been more critical focus on possible damage to supermarket job creation than analysis of supermarket job destruction.

No-one can absolutely prove cause and effect, but statistics make depressing reading.

Between 1998 and 2008, almost two-thirds of fruit and vegetable shops and one-third of butchers in Scotland closed. In 2006, the Competition Commission estimated 7 of every 10 spent on groceries went into supermarket tills.

What of it?

We may feel guilty that the busy, varied high streets of our youth have been reduced to strings of charity shops with the occasional sun-tan parlour, betting shop and Tesco Metro.

But guilt alone will not coax us away from the aisles, the two-for-one offers, the apparently infinite choice and endless opening hours of supermarkets.

A bit of hard-nosed analysis and enlightened self-interest just might.

Locally based businesses keep money circulating within towns and villages by creating supply chains with other local businesses.

Friends of the Earth estimates 50-70 per cent of money spent in local shops stays in the local economy, but no-one seems to know how much value supermarkets suck out of communities.

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The bulk of their multi-million-pound profits go (largely) to distant shareholders and national and multi-national suppliers.

But no-one seems to care.

It's been left to pressure groups such as the NFU, Friends of the Earth and the redoubtable Federation of Small Businesses in Scotland to highlight the downsides of letting out-of-town development reduce town and village economies to rubble.

And it's been left to farmers - marooned on newspaper farming pages - to highlight "blatant anti-competitive practices" by supermarkets over milk prices.Just last week, this newspaper reported "anger growing in the dairy sector at supermarkets' bullying power" and quoted dairy producer Willie Campbell, who attacked the "greed and arrogant wielding of power by the big supermarkets".

But, of course, sceptics can easily respond: "Well he would say that wouldn't he?"

We are an irretrievably urban society with the largest councils in Europe and a political class desperately anxious to appear modern and urban(e).

Even though most Scots live outside cities and the current crop of Holyrood party leaders were all educated in towns, those same politicians are prepared to tolerate a loss of local vitality and community cohesion in the name of supermarket expansion and community benefit.

The death throes of our communities hardly register "at the top".

The very day Mr Swinney was clobbering squealing supermarkets, a conference in Stirling heard that Scotland had more supermarket floor space per head of the population than anywhere in Britain, and probably Europe. According to retail market expert CACI, Dundee tops the overprovision league table, with London West at the bottom. Of the ten most "overprovided" postcodes, nine are Scottish.

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Supermarkets suggest expansion north of the Border will halt if Mr Swinney's tax plans continue. They're probably right - we reached saturation point a long time ago.

That could have something to do with planning policy - a "town centre first" principle was adopted in England in 1997, whilst the same policy wasn't fully enacted in Scotland until 2006.

SO, FOR more than a decade south of the Border, councils have had the explicit aim of favouring town centres as locations for new retail and leisure development. That could have prompted English supermarkets to expand on the high street rather than in the suburbs - but it hasn't.

Of course, there are now scaled-down "metro" stores aimed at the largely work-based population of the high street. But the biggest footfall, the biggest spend and the biggest new sites in England are still located out of town.

Regulation has capped supermarket expansion down south, not shifted new stores to inner-city locations where rates bills may be ten times higher than out of town. For that small mercy, high street traders may be heaving a communal sigh of relief.

But customers are still faced with a choice. And given our reliance on cars and our long working hours culture, the out-of-town superstore will still win every time.

Evidently, the Scottish public itself is in two minds about supermarkets.

I'd wager most Scots would agree with both of the following statements:

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"Supermarkets wreck high streets". And "Supermarkets are convenient and (appear) cheap."

So can little and large co-exist?

I doubt it.

Take Edinburgh. A new Tesco Metro has opened in Holyrood Road.Two locally run sandwich bars managed to co-exist with the previous store - perhaps because its produce didn't appeal to the discerning palates of those employed at the neighbouring BBC, British Council, European Parliament and Holyrood.

Last week, I popped into one sandwich shop at lunchtime - it was empty. Three members of staff suddenly looked like two too many - before the Tesco Metro opened a few weeks ago, they were all rushed off their feet.

We want the best of both worlds - convenience and variety at the supermarket as well as connection and high-value shopping in small stores. Unfortunately, we can't have both unless the "playing field" is re-levelled in favour of local, small, independent and town-centre-based traders. It's not just an economic argument. Supermarkets create an acceptance of visual monotony and standardisation which, taken to excess, are bad for the soul.

I believed my car had been stolen outside the South Gyle centre last year. It was actually parked a few rows away. My mistake arose from remembering there was a row of trees nearby. But there are very many rows of trees at South Gyle.

The whole aura around our mall-type habitats is deliberately samey. Old town centres are not. We need our habitats to be memorable, distinctive, different and eye-catching. We need unmistakeable landmarks to create a sense of place, not featureless environments which encourage the belief that we all live nowhere - in a post-place, post- community world.

Standardisation has become the pinnacle of human achievement. I know - I am a Starbucks junkie.

But I know my craving for precisely the same coffee everywhere is as life-limiting as any other momentarily gratifying bad habit.

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Scots are not temperamentally moderate. We struggle to achieve balance and our "natural" appetites are not entirely to be trusted.

I don't want to live in a society which values familiarity over novelty and sacrifices diversity for dreary monotony. I don't want to support strong-armed purchasing tactics or enforcement of precisely the same coffee-making methods across the world.

But habit leads us back towards the big and the bland every time.

Bulk purchasing, convenience shopping and economies of scale - all these aspects of the supermarket experience look positively virtuous as our economy shrinks and wavers. And yet it's big players that have let us down.

Just as the Bank of Scotland has quit Ireland, so Tesco will leave tomorrow if the price is not right.

The local trader will stay until chronic lack of local loyalty forces surrender.

We don't need any more characterless boxes to shop, live or work in.

So, all power to John Swinney's elbow..