I have just returned hotfoot from an audience with Tony Blair. As one of around 30 editors across the UK, I was fortunate to be invited to interview the Prime Minister at 10 Downing Street.
A few of us were selected to ask questions – which ranged from war in Africa to nuclear energy. I tackled Mr Blair on planning laws and the relationship between councils and local shops. The Prime Minister told me that planning applications in the UK were now being treated with much more regard to smaller shops and the environment.
I also put to him baker Ian Martin’s point about how, in Australia, out-of-town planning applications were now being given only to ‘complexes’, which had to include small shops clustered around a supermarket.
I know we are all cynical when it comes to politicians and promises, but it was a point in which he seemed genuinely interested. Both the supermarkets and the small shops appear to benefit from the system in Australia, where the in-stores need a smaller footprint for bakery that is economical for them.
The small shops, including bakers, are able to differentiate their offering and benefit from both the supermarket shoppers and other clientele. Customers can wander throughout the complex and place all their goods in the same trolley. It sounds too simple and good to be true. If only we could wind the clock back 20 years and start again – this time with common sense.
I also asked the Prime Minister if we could resolve the problem of small shops still suffering from too much red tape, restricted delivery access, punitive parking and the fact they are penalised because they do not have the lobbying power of the British Retail Consortium. He simply said “he understood”.
But that’s not enough! A new study by the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE) confirms that local shops flourish once superstore plans are turned down (pg 4). That is what happens in the rest of Europe. But you cannot change the status quo; you can only change the future.
I believe our supermarkets are the best in the world, but they do not foster ‘community’. I suggest the CPRE, the Federation of Small Businesses, the Independent Retailers Consortium and other disparate organisations with the same aim, all join together in allocating funding to a central lobbyist, while maintaining their own individuality. Because, in this era, vociferous lobbying is the ONLY thing that counts.