For various reasons I have recently been staying in the Lincolnshire town of Louth. In some ways Lincolnshire is about twenty years behind the rest of the UK. It’s a rural county with no major cities but many, widely scattered market towns. The main road and rail transport routes bypass the county entirely.
For these reasons Louth retains its character as a farming centre, rustic and unhurried. In 2012 the town was voted Britain’s Favourite Market Town by viewers of the BBC’s Countryfile, beating celebrated beauty spots including Ludlow, Perth and Stamford. Markets are held in the town three days a week. Many of the town’s buildings clearly show signs of their agricultural origins as wool merchants, seed dealers, maltings or the old corn exchange. There is a working cattle market in the town and many of the town pubs have good rustic names: The Brown Cow, The Golden Fleece or The Miller’s Daughter.
The town centre is noted for the large number of independent retailers. There are several family businesses including bakers, green grocers, a large number of butchers, and a specialist cheese shop. The lobby group, Keep Louth Special, attributes this to the absence of a major supermarket in the town. There is a small branch of Morrisons and a similarly sized Co-Op, but the town is extremely unusual these days in not having a large supermarket either in the town or on an edge-of-town site.
That state of equilibrium is about to be challenged. This week, East Lindsey District Council, which owns the cattle market, has announced its intention to close the existing facility and move to an out-of-town location. They have invited sealed bids for the multi-acre site, and all of the big four food retailers have declared an interest in acquiring the property.
Keep Louth Special, and many of the town’s existing traders are girding their loins for battle and preparing to fight any application to build a new supermarket. They claim that a major supermarket in the town would be a disaster, forcing many local businesses to close and irreversibly altering the character of the town.
But not everyone feels the same way. Many people would welcome a major retailer in the town. They point out that most of the town’s residents already travel the 25km to Grimsby to do their main food shopping. They want to see the same choice and low prices available closer to home. The scene is set for a major planning battle.
My guess is the cattle market site will be sold and it will be bought by one of the big four supermarkets. Money talks, and the funds raised will allow the council to keep council tax rises down. In a couple of years there will be a supermarket on the site and most of the townsfolk will use it. And what will be the impact on Louth’s small retailers?
I would like to believe that the changes will only be positive. Perhaps the presence of a large supermarket will enhance the town as a retail destination. Maybe there will be a win win and the local retailers will share in the increased size of the pie. But I doubt it.
I fear that many small businesses will be tilted into deficit. I suspect that several existing businesses will turn out to be surprisingly fragile and the arrival of a new major competitor will prove to be the difference between survival and closure. They will be replaced by charity shops and discount stores and some will be boarded up for years. Shoppers will actually see choice and service decline. There will be a net loss of wealth to the town. Research shows that a shockingly small percentage of money spent in a national supermarket stays within the local economy. There will be a loss of vigour in the town centre. Even the district council will notice the difference in receipts from business rates. It has already happened all over the county.
I am tempted to remember the words of Paul Weller. “The public gets what the public wants.” But I doubt if many people would actually choose the future that I have foretold. The trouble s that most people will take a short term view. They will look forward to lower prices, two-for-one offers and extra club card points. Probably it’s more accurate to say simply that as a society we get the towns we deserve!