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Comment: I fear for the future of Ulverston if Sainsbury's opens
5:20pm Thursday 14th February 2013 in Opinion
Totnes fought and won. Southwold fought and lost. In Ulverston there was barely a scuffle.
And so Costa is coming, to a prime town centre site, where it will be in direct competition with the existing and independent coffee shops.
What is the point of this? It’s hard to see how anyone could actually want Costa.
They do, with coffee and cakes, more or less what the independents do but in a more expensive and less interesting way. And you have to queue.
But the timid and faint-hearted will go there, and things will be harder for local businesses, and Ulverston will become a little less special. That’s about it.
It’s altogether different with Sainsburys. They really will provide a bigger range of quality foods at better prices than those available locally, Booths included.
What’s not to like? Well, it’s quite simple – it will rip the heart out of the town centre. And if you support Sainsburys either you deny this or you say it doesn’t matter.
Does it matter? Some insist that if local businesses can’t compete that’s their problem and they deserve to fail. This is a view both harsh and naïve.
It overlooks the fact that there is hardly a level playing field, and, in light of dodgy banks, greedy power companies, and recent spate of tax avoidance schemes, shows an outmoded faith in the market.
And it ignores the knock-on effects. We’re not just talking airy-fairy stuff about healthy environments, quality of life, vibrant communities. A stagnant town centre will have bad consequences for jobs, house prices, schools and safe streets.
Does convenience and saving make up for this? It will certainly be convenient. Why mess about with complicated and expensive Ulverston car parks and then walk around in the rain if you can park easily and for free and get everything under one roof?
But whether the benefits can outweigh the drawbacks is a much harder call.
I don’t really object to Costa and Sainsburys. They’re doing what they supposed to do, pursuing all legal means of making as much money for their shareholders as possible – it’s all about growth, growth and more growth as the Costa boss put it.
It’s not their job to have any interest whatsoever in what happens locally. They’re not supposed to care whether high streets, towns and communities live or die.
So whose job it? Who should care? It’s down to local government to work it out.
What’s desperately needed here is some deep and careful thinking, by intelligent people who take their powers and responsibilities seriously.
It’s not enough to roll over before big business, or to claim that hands are tied, or mumble something about the ‘inevitability’ of ‘progress’.
And – more controversial – it’s not enough simply to please the voters, and ensure re-election.
Suppose most people want Sainsburys. Should we get it? Think about human nature. What most of us most of the time are after is just to get more of what we want. But we confuse what we want with what is good for us, we think mostly just about the short term, and we put little or no weight on what is good for others. If governments simply gave people what they wanted, the world would be very different, but not at all better.
Ulverston is an attractive and lively little town – and the way things are going, and if Sainsburys is kept at bay, it’ll soon be more attractive than Kendal. But it is, I think, a bit fragile, with not a lot in reserve. It could easily be messed up. That mustn’t be allowed to happen.
So let’s hope that this time, at the very least, there’s more than a scuffle.
Environmental philosopher Christopher Belshaw