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Skipton V Tesco: David and Goliath go shopping

Friday 18 November 2005

Countryside commentator John Sheard, who over the years has fumed about the destruction of "real shops" by the great supermarket chains, discusses the battle now going between the archetypal market town Skipton and the daddy of them all, Tesco

FOUR weeks ago, a reader had a go at me by pointing out that "my hero" - his phrase, not mine - Prince Charles supplies supermarkets from his Cornwall estates (see Have your say, October 21). Well, I am sure he does - some of them, anyway. But I doubt very much if Tesco are on that list.

I raise the point because Tesco have been in the news in a big way this past week or so, both nationally and here in the Yorkshire Dales. And, if you are one of those people who like to see our farmers and organic food growers getting a fair price for their produce, the news was enough to make you fume.

Skipton's town centre Tesco

Over three days last weekend, the supermarket chain - which sells more food than any other British retailer - was condemned for A) importing more organic food than any other group from countries with lower animal welfare standards than ours; B) for selling more booze illegally to underage drinkers than any other chain; and C) and for selling fewer English apples than any other chain.

Locally, a passionate debate was underway in Skipton over Tesco plans to double the size of its store which, unlike most similar sites on out-of-town retail estates, lies just a couple of hundred yards from the High Street - a street which has changed almost beyond recognition since Tesco took over a small, locally owned, store some 20 years ago.

In those days, you could still buy quality food on the High Street. Rackham's had a small but upmarket food hall just off the pavement. The previous owners of the Tesco store also stocked much local produce: I remember with delight that you could buy small quantities of fresh game to make a game pie.

And just ten years before that, there were some 30 butchers' shops in Skipton alone, which seems unbelievable today but the figure was given to me by a butcher friend who served his apprenticeship in Otley Street.

Now I admit that this situation has worsened since the opening of the Morrison's supermarket on the old cattle mart site 11 years ago, but until a year or so ago, the collapse in local shops had so far been mainly confined to food retailers. That has now changed.

Petrol stations are closing all over the Yorkshire Dales and the reason is simple: local garage owners simply cannot compete with the petrol prices offered by the supermarkets. And when a village loses its petrol station, it can also lose its mechanics and car servicing facilities, another loss of local jobs and services for country folk.

The real danger of the bid to double the size of Tesco is Skipton is that this is a chain which now makes much of its £2 billion profit from non-food sales of clothing, books, DVD pharmaceutical products, electrical appliances and the like.

These are the staples of small shop business in Skipton. I cannot begin to count the number of those which have closed down in recent years but walk along the High Street and count the number of charity shops you see - those and opticians, mobile phone outlets, banks and building societies.

Most of these were proper shops even a decade ago. They gave Skipton much of it character and allowed local families to make a modest living. Now they are mostly gone and Skipton High Street could be in any one of a hundred market towns which have been decimated by the invasion of the superstores.

As I write, the planning officials at Craven District Council are recommending that the Tesco application be refused. I hope very much that the councillors take the same line. Sadly, Tesco can afford the best lawyers and have enormous lobbying power in Westminster, where any decision made in Craven can be overthrown. I just hope this is not a David and Goliath battle that the giant wins!

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