By Max Wind-Cowie, Head of the Progressive Conservatism Project at Demos.
In Wednesday’s Times, ConservativeHome’s Tim Montgomerie described himself as a ‘Tesco Tory’. His pride in a great British company is to be applauded. But that pride is, unfortunately, increasingly unfashionable and has to be defended with gusto from those – on the left and the romantic right – who have taken to pouring scorn on the benefits of big business.
This week the Progressive Conservatism Project published a report on urban regeneration – Civic Streets: The Big Society in Action – which made the case for mainstream retail chains such as Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s and Morrison’s to be encouraged to develop their presence in Britain’s most deprived communities. For the record, and some people do seem to have trouble believing me on this, our work was not funded by some evil cabal of corporate interests but rather by an impeccably independent regeneration charity – the Barrow Cadbury Trust.
We found, in our conversations and interviews with residents and community leaders, that the arrival of a mainstream retail brand on a very deprived high street can be a ‘game-changer’ for regeneration. Communities that are isolated and marginalised can really benefit from big business and big brands arriving in their midst. For a start there are the material positives; jobs are created, high-quality and low-cost fresh fruit and vegetables are available and previously run-down retail parks are spruced up. But there are also significant social benefits that can have a profound impact on the confidence and the morale of broken neighbourhoods. People in deprived areas know that everyone else has access to everyday retail brands and they recognise the reality that they have been left out. In Castle Vale – previously a sink estate on the outskirts of Birmingham – residents didn’t believe that any ‘normal’ supermarket chain would be interested in setting-up-shop in their area. They felt that their community simply wasn’t good enough for a mainstream brand. When the community action group managed to persuade Sainsbury’s to invest in developing a flagship store in the heart of the estate it brought pride and confidence that things could, and would, change for the better.
Supermarkets also have a positive impact on perceptions of an area from outside. Everyone can name an estate or a neighbourhood that had a ‘reputation’ in the city where they grew up. Sink estates often carry a postcode stigma that undermines the community and creates a sense of ‘other’ about the area – this stigma makes it harder for residents to improve their lives, to get jobs and to get their children into certain schools. By creating an incentive for those who are more affluent to visit these estates for the routine purpose of the weekly shop we can start to undermine that stigma and normalise deprived neighbourhoods. Castle Vale went from being a place people were desperate to escape to having one of the longest social housing waiting lists – of people desperate to get in – in the Midlands.
We can and should bring big business into the much-maligned ‘big society’ – on which we hope to rely in order to lessen the pain of cuts. Community groups like the one in Castle Vale know what will work for their areas; they must be liberated to deliver it. If they want to attract supermarkets to lift the morale, employment, health and perceptions of their community then we should free them to offer incentives and time limited tax breaks in order to seal-the-deal. There are numerous examples of well-meaning Local Authorities blocking supermarket developments in deprived areas out of a vague concern to protect ‘local business’ – where communities think differently they should be able to subvert their Council and secure large retailers for their area rather than for a remote retail-park reachable only by motorway and available only to those with cars. It is all too easy to attack big business and to idealise small shops or markets – indeed many greeted the publication of our report with untrammelled outrage – but in very poor communities it is not a choice between Asda and an organic greengrocer, it is a choice between the fast-food outlet and tinned meals from the corner shop.
It is time to own up to the power of big business to deliver enormous good in our communities – rather than simply playing to middle-class snobbery and bashing them at every turn. Cameron’s desire to mobilise the big society may not have played well on the doorstep but it is the underpinning of his alliance with the Liberal Democrats and will be key to the future of the coalition. Rightly, this will mean more power and freedom for charities, community groups and individuals but it must also mean utilising the benefits of business to transform those communities that have consistently been left out of Britain’s economic life.