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Linklater's Scotland - Supermarkets
Columnist, Scotland on Sunday
This article, which was
originally published in the Spectrum section of Scotland on Sunday
on 17th April 2005, is reproduced on Land-Care with the kind permission
of the author and the newspaper.
Filed 19 Apr 05
LAST week Sir Terence Leahy, the
chief executive of Tesco, Britains biggest food retailer,
received the first of what is likely to be a shoal of letters postmarked
Scottish Borders. I trust that he will take time to
read them, because they carry the voice of Galashiels, and when
Galashiels speaks, it is time to listen. As G K Chesterton said
of the English, Smile at us, pay us, pass us; but do not quite forget/For
we are the people of England, that have never spoken yet.
The Galashiels protest comes late - too
late, perhaps, to save one of the towns great monuments -
but it is gathering momentum, and, from Kiev to Kyrgyzstan, we all
know what people-power can achieve. At issue is the fate not just
of a fine Edwardian building, but the welfare and direction of the
towns economy, as well as that of the surrounding area. What
is happening in Galashiels has implications for every small town
in Scotland, where the inexorable march of giant superstores threatens
the network of local shops and producers that forms the bedrock
of so many rural communities.
(photo ©magnus linklater)
To enlarge Click
In Galashiels, Tesco wants to establish
the biggest superstore in the Borders, not on the outskirts of the
town, but right in its very heart. To do so, the company will need
to tear down several buildings, including the old College of Textiles
- a splendid structure in red sandstone, complete with classical
pillars, porticoes and pediments, where generations of Borders weavers
and dyers learnt their trade, and which is an integral part of the
industrial heritage of the Borders. For nearly two years, the planning
application has been weaving its way through the system, and though
there have been letters and leaders in the local paper, there have,
until now, been few signs of outright opposition to the proposal.
The fight-back took shape this month, in
the Volunteer Hall on St John Street, on a windy Thursday evening.
On the platform, and chairing the meeting, was Tom Douglas, a local
farmer, flanked by David Roemmele, from the Architectural Heritage
Society of Scotland, Chris Ballance, the Green MSP, Rosie Byrne,
from the Scottish Socialist Party, Michael Hall, whose great-great-grandfather
had built the College of Textiles back in 1908 - and yours truly.
I was there, as an outside intruder, because I had written about
the affair in this paper, and because I could not quite believe
that, in this day and age, a local council would be prepared to
stand back and watch the destruction of its own architectural heritage.
As it turns out, I was wrong - Borders Council
is doing just that. But, having listened to the angry protests of
the 150 or so Galashiels residents who turned out to voice their
indignation that evening, it may even now be regretting its failure
to act. It was a heady occasion, a genuine case of grassroots protest,
made all the more effective because no one had known in advance
how many would be there. As Tom Douglas told the audience, "If
there had been only six of you, this protest would have died the
death. As it is, we can go out and fight with renewed confidence."
The meeting was a fine example of genuine,
if passionate, debate. Those taking part were ordinary Galashiels
folk, both young and old. They may be slow to move but, once roused,
they make up a formidable force. To its credit, the council turned
up in the shape of its leader, David Parker, and its development
officer, Brian Frater. Both put their case with robust conviction,
but the mood was against them, and as the evening wore on their
arguments seemed to shrivel in the gale force of opposition. Speaker
after speaker inveighed against their inability to speak out against
the Tesco plan. "Are the Tesco folk here?" demanded a
woman in the front row. "No - I thought not."
"What would you rather see - a beautiful
building or a ruddy great Tesco?" demanded one elderly resident.
"The council should have laid this
before the people of Gala," said a middle-aged man.
"There has been a hidden agenda here,"
The council claims that, since the building
had not been listed by Historic Scotland, there is nothing that
can be done to prevent its demolition. That sounds incredible, but
technically it appears to be true. Because the council does not
own the building, it has no locus in the affair. Whereas
in England a local authority has the power to step in and impose
its own preservation order, in Scotland it is only entitled to object
on environmental issues such as transport, water or access. In this
case, the only condition imposed on Tesco was that the company find
alternative accommodation for the government employees who still
use office space in the old building.
There is more to this, however, than just
a dry discussion of legal rights. It raises fundamental questions
of who decides the future shape of our small towns - a large and
powerful commercial company, with high-paid advisers and lawyers,
or the representatives of the people.
In the case of Galashiels, there was no
contest. Tesco has had things all its own way. From the start it
argued that the town would benefit from its vast new store, organised
a petition among shoppers to demonstrate that it had grassroots
support, and when, disastrously late in the whole proceedings, Historic
Scotland attempted to list the building in order to save it, Tesco
took the case to court and won.
At no point did the council oppose the superstores
application - perhaps because it believed its hands were tied; more
likely because it bought the argument that what was good for Tesco
was good for Galashiels.
In the course of the meeting, however, some
unpalatable facts emerged. Planning permission had been granted,
it appeared, "because there was no reason not to". At
no stage had the council carried out an impact assessment to see
how what effect the store would have on local businesses. And it
had made no effort to canvas local opinion; the only voice of opposition
emerged from a petition gathered on the streets of Galashiels by
There is, however, mounting evidence against
these massive takeovers of a local economy. Surveys carried out
in England show that superstores in small market towns spell death
to local businesses. As Chris Ballance points out, their arrival
can "wipe out an entire high street". One report, drawn
up by Boots, which surveyed the effect of 90 supermarkets, showed
that within a ten-mile radius there is a net loss of 270 jobs whenever
a new store opens. In Suffolk, Caroline Cranbrook, a local campaigner,
demonstrated that local economies depend on a network of suppliers
and retailers, all of whom are at risk when the supermarket come
Across Scotland, these issues confront small
towns everywhere. Kelso, Selkirk and Melrose have thus far resisted
the advance. But Castle Douglas, ironically designated the food
capital of the Borders, faces the imminent arrival of a Tesco store,
which is likely to obliterate the very independence that gives the
town its distinctiveness. The same thing is happening to the Perthshire
town of Crieff. Both deserve to be defended.
All these points and more were discussed,
debated and loudly applauded by a Galashiels audience, which showed
in no uncertain manner what residents think of the plan. At the
end of the evening, Tom Douglas asked for all those who supported
the demolition to raise their hands. Not one went up. "I think
thats unanimous, dont you?" he said. "The
fight goes on.
The above article may be viewed on the Scotland on Sunday website
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