Helping the high street to fight back

TWO ways of looking at the high street have caught my attention in the past few weeks – one is the suggestion that our town would benefit from another supermarket, and the other was an article in the West Country food magazine Crumbs highlighting how we can all help our local high streets by using independent shops.

We live in Wincanton, which shares many of the problems experienced by small towns the length and breadth of the country – we have several empty shops, some vacant for years, and there are no banks since the last one closed two years ago.

It’s not all bad news here – we still have a number of independent shops and businesses. There is a very good butchers, an excellent electrical goods shop, a knowledgeable wine merchant, a newspaper shop and stationers which also carries a good selection of books for all ages, a well-stocked pet shop, and our Post Office is not only one of the prettiest buildings in town, it also carries a wide range of gifts, children’s toys, cards and more.

In the last few years, bucking the general trend, a brilliant bakery has opened, with a coffee shop, serving breakfasts, cakes, snacks and lunches (and the best almond croissants!), last year an independent greengrocers opened, and the enterprising owner has taken on the adjoining empty premises to open a wholefood and organic shop, and just in the last few weeks a vintage shop and a small hardware shop have both opened.

And just a short distance from the town centre, up near the racecourse, we have one of the area’s best farm shops, which has recently opened a cafe.

These new businesses represent a welcome sign of recovery for the town, but they need to be supported all year round, not just when they open, as a bit of a novelty.

It beggars belief that anyone could suggest that we need another supermarket in the town centre – we already have three supermarkets, Morrisons and Lidl near the junction with the A303 and a Co-op in the town centre. The proposal was floated in the recent town centre strategy and is supported by at least one of our district councillors, but has not found favour with most residents or traders, whatever the consultants’ “focus groups” and “key stakeholders” may say.

There is a myth that supermarkets offer savings on your weekly shop. What they offer is SELECTIVE savings, balanced by quiet price hikes they hope you won’t notice, while they distract you with BOGOF offers on tangerines or washing powder.

Supermarkets offer convenience – buy it all under one roof, or even have it delivered to your door. They seem to offer choice, but it’s often an illusion – independent greengrocers and farm shops, for example, offer much better choice and quality of tomatoes, greens or potatoes. Quantity is not the same as quality. You can buy what you want from a shopkeeper, whereas at the supermarket you are faced with a standard pack, usually wrapped in plastic in a plastic tray. Why should you have to buy eight sausages or four lamb chops because that’s what’s in the “convenient” pack on the chill counter when you only want two sausages or one chop?

The alarmist reports a few weeks ago that leaving the EU with no deal could lead to food shortages set many people worrying how they would cope. Those fears are probably exaggerated, like so many claims and counter-claims around this unedifying Brexit chaos.

What is certain, for both the good of our environment and the economy of our town and our region, is that we need to be more aware of the importance of supporting local producers, farmers and businesses, of cutting not only food miles but also our own mileage by shopping locally – perhaps even, if we can, walking to the shops.

Shopping daily is not possible for people in full time work, but there are many who are retired and an increasing number of us who work from home, self-employed or freelance, who benefit both from the exercise and from the social contacts of walking to the shops.

Successive surveys and reports have demonstrated conclusively that shopping locally – at independent high street shops, village stores and farm shops – is up to 60 per cent more beneficial to the local community then the same amount spent at a supermarket.

We probably can’t bring banks back to the high street, but we can all help to reduce some of the other woes of our town centres – and at the same time we can help ourselves to better quality, lower costs, less mileage and benefits to the economy and the environment. That sounds like a win-win.

Fanny Charles