BUSINESS leaders have backed calls to give planners greater powers to stop giant supermarkets muscling into the North East’s rural towns.
A new report from the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) claims money spent on local produce in local shops is worth three times as many jobs for the region as those spent in big stores.
And councillors and food producers have thrown their weight behind the group’s recommendations that more should be done to encourage small businesses and farm stores to set up ahead of the national and international brands.
Highlighting the Northumberland market town of Hexham, where the report claims a huge Tesco Extra store accounts for 45% of all main food shopping trips in Tynedale, the campaign praised the town’s farmers’ market for the way it is bringing businesses together and succeeding despite its huge neighbour, but said more needs to be done.
Graeme Willis, senior food campaigner for the CPRE, said: “In setting out to map local food webs we hoped to measure the fantastic contributions these networks make.
“We achieved just that, finding great examples of local food webs helping to buck national trends of high street decline.
“But we have also found that the rise of out-of-town supermarkets and insufficient leadership from Government over many years have left many local food webs under siege. Action must be taken to support them, and revitalise our high streets and local economies.”
In 2005 Tynedale Council said it had been virtually powerless to refuse plans for the 60,00sq ft supermarket on Hexham’s former Tynedale Retail Park – which when surveyed last August sold just seven local items, including Trees Can’t Dance chilli sauce.
The grocery giant defended itself against charges of bullying by saying it had sought local planning permission even though it could have opened without it.
But it was just one of a host of new stores the “big four” – Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons – have opened in recent times, with a 2010 survey showing the number of outlets owned by the companies rocketing from seven to 59 in the TS postcodes in only six years.
Yet should something be done to try to redress the balance then Northumberland county councillor Terry Robson, who represents Hexham Central and Acomb, said he would be all in favour.
“Hexham has a very successful farmers’ market where local producers come in and compete on quality and price with the likes of Tesco. That’s proven because it’s a success over several years and it seems to keep growing,” he said.
“And anything that can encourage more of that sort of thing for places like Hexham town centre I would be right behind it and try to support any such initiative in an way I can.”
In a recent survey by the NFU, three-quarters of people in the North East and Yorkshire said they believe the UK should be more self-sufficient in food and seven in 10 said they “always” or “sometimes” look for British food when shopping.
But the importance of supermarkets – many of which stock little in the way of local produce – for jobseekers has been highlighted by as many as 6,000 people applying for just 500 positions at a new North East Sainsbury’s and plans for a large, multi-million pound shop that could reduce the number of unemployed people in Sunderland by 4%.
Yet the effect on jobs can be deceptive. When the National Retail Planning Forum examined the effects on employment following the opening of 93 edge-of-town supermarkets across the UK they found a net average loss of 276 jobs in each area
Jane Hogan, business development manager at Taste North East said regardless of the supermarkets, the only way to ensure a vibrant local food scene was to do more as consumers to consciously choose local produce, and for more businesses to work together, like Allendale Brewery and Moody Baker’s “Wolf” pies, which are highlighted by the CPRE report.
“If you buy local you are helping your local shop, helping local business and then there is the tourism effect as well.
“Unless we buy the local food that people expect to eat when they come here, you won’t be able to eat it any more and then fewer people will visit.
“That’s why we’re trying to build a network of consumers who know where to seek out all the great produce made in the region.
“That’s a starting point, but if it were then to be supported by planning laws then that would be fantastic.”
OUR CAMPAIGN TO GET EVERYONE TO BUY, USE AND EAT LOCAL
THE Journal launched Taste North East England in January 2008 with the aim of getting everyone from consumers to retailers, hoteliers to restaurateurs, to ‘buy local, use local, eat local’.
That campaign continues with a weekly food and drink section in The Journal every Friday and regular Taste events around the region – there was a Taste marquee at the Northumberland County Show last week and another Taste event is being held at Beamish Hall on Sunday.
A year later, we launched Think North East England First, a campaign which extended the positive discrimination message to other goods and services.
It was not about asking people to buy things they couldn’t afford or didn’t need.
It was about reminding people that when they had to buy something they should stop and think if they could make a positive choice for a North East-made product.
The campaign was launched by the players of Newcastle and Sunderland before a derby match at St James’ Park and had the support of Sir John Hall, the Duke and Duchess of Northumberland and the then Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
Yesterday’s report shows that both campaigns are still as relevant as ever to the North East economy.