I have sometimes wondered about the castaways on the BBC’s Desert Islands – are their food needs met by a traditional high street, a hypermarket or even Tesco.com? Or do they have to forage for whatever they can find? If necessities are catered for, then what does this mean in terms of how food is provided?
This idle and useless speculation for some reason came to mind on reading the press coverage of Sir Terry Leahy’s turn on Desert Island Discs. The headline is that the current state of the high street in the UK represents “progress”. Our derelict, boarded up shops simply reflect our changing consumer and societal choices and behaviours. No doubt there are many who will disagree with this point of view, but for me, there is something, though not everything, in it.
For some the ridiculousness of the proposition is well exampled by the current scandal over the presence of horse meat in the food chain, or of pork in supposedly Halal products. This short-cut, short-term, cost-reductionist approach to the quality of our food is somehow symptomatic of the distancing of the bucolic farmer from the knowledgeable consumer. And yes, it is.
But, let’s not imagine that it was not ever thus. The Co-operative Movement came into being in the mid 19th century as a reaction both to profiteering and adulteration of food. Some work I am involved in about retailers around 1900 has shown up some scandalous practices in terms of what went into food and what could be labelled as what (have a read of early editions of the British Food Journal to see these widespread practices according to the court cases reported). In the 1940s we come across food retailers hatching chickens and rearing them for a few weeks in store, as a promotional gimmick. Health and safety – give me a break. And of course Ronnie Barker’s magnificent caricature of a local shopkeeper in Open All Hours is based firmly on recognisable practices.
For many, the range of products in our food stores, the choices we have and the prices and quality that are offered (and this is not just Tesco and the big boys but Aldi and Lidl and all the local convenience chains) are vastly superior to anything that previous generations could have imagined. But where we fall down is in economic and physical access for all and in the implications of the homogenization and standardisation of the products. We have built distance into the supply chain as we have generated a brand of efficiency and that distance has not always worked to the benefit of consumers (in product composition, unhealthy foods and so on). Is there too much choice in some ways?
Overall many would judge that this is indeed progress. And that it is unfortunate that this progress comes at the price of empty high streets and a failing system. But are many better off than they might have been? Many, and I include myself, would argue yes, situating the discussion in the wider terms of societal change and not purely a retail one. The old high street of nostalgic memory was fuelled by a social system that subjugated many women and placed boundaries on their actions and engagement. If we want to return to the high streets of the past, then it can not be done by returning to the social mores of the past – however much some (male) politicians and others might wish it so.
So that leaves us with the price of progress. How do we reuse our town centres to meet the changed behaviours? How do we make sure all can benefit from the changes we have wrought? How do we make sure that those that want different things – traditional stores, local markets, engagement with producers, true traceability, and good healthy food, can get these things?
Maybe it is perhaps about balance and vigilance. We should fight against the tendency to assume big business and suppliers always work on our behalf and “know the market best” – that route leads to the knacker’s yard. We have to step up the vigilance and “policing”, making breaking our laws simply too personally and corporatively “expensive”. We should challenge the assumptions of the relationship between products, choice and health. And we should ensure that in all we do, we try to make sure that diversity is a watchword, and that different and diverse opportunities are positively encouraged. Small scale and local retailers are vital in many ways, so how can we build positive encouragement for them into our towns and plans (and not just words but actions)?