== Jo Fairley is co-owner of Judges organic bakery and grocery in Hastings and co-founded Green & Black’s chocolate firm with hubby Craig Sams ==
The biggest threat to the small, independent British baker isn’t the credit crunch (bread is such an affordable food, kilo-per-kilo - and so filling). It’s not even the soar-away price of wheat. No: it’s the determination of local councils up and down the country to make it almost impossible for anyone to access a high street where they might buy bread - forcing bread-lovers, instead, into the arms of the supermarket bakeries.
In my own home town of Hastings, where my Judges Bakery is sited, the local council has damaged trade not only in our shop, but the whole high street. In an insane step, earlier this year, 40 new residents’ parking spaces were created on our higgledy-piggledy streets - all of which were either converted from precious paid-for spaces or from free-for-two-hours parking spaces accessible by out-of-towners. The result? We had endless panicked customers dashing in, motors running on the street outside, to tell us that they wouldn’t be able to shop with us any more: there simply wasn’t anywhere to park.
In addition, the council extended the paid parking hours from 6pm to 8pm. The pubs are dead. So are the restaurants. And we’ve lost those valuable customers who would nip in on their way home to pick up some bread - and some of the other lines we sell - for dinner. When I’ve talked to other bakeries, I’ve discovered that it’s the same story, up and down the country. Short-term greed on the part of councils to bring in extra parking money has, instead, driven drivers elsewhere.
Now, when I bleated about this in our Judges newsletter - which goes out to 1,000 homes every month - I got hammered by some local residents, who said I shouldn’t be encouraging car use. And I don’t. Wouldn’t we all love to see a situation where everyone could walk to do their shopping? But the simple truth is that the customers who drove to us didn’t just nip here from up the road - they motored in from the outlying villages and towns, where there are no longer bakers, butchers and candlestick makers. They had a choice: to drive to our town and frequent small, local traders like us, or to head for an out-of-town supermarket, and fill their trolleys there. And guess what? Parking is free at supermarkets - and accessible, often with thousands of spaces there for the taking.
So is it any wonder that the vast majority of bread in this country is now made by a handful of large companies and trucked across the land, either as finished or par-baked loaves?
If this country’s councils really want to deliver on their pledge to support local businesses, such as bakeries (and green-grocers and hardware stores, come to that), they need to walk their talk. And they need to be realistic about the fact that, like it or not - and from an eco point of view, I don’t - we live in the age of the motor car.