Should we follow France in cracking down on supermarkets?

In France you see town centres bustling with a healthy balance of independents and chains: the impact on society is striking.

New Statesman
Leclerc supermarket. Supermarkets in France do not have such a heavy presence (Photo: Getty Images)

Supermarkets in the UK contribute to obesity, binge drinking, the degeneration of town centres, rising unemployment and the growing gap between the rich and poor. They pay most of their workers pittance whilst faraway shareholders make extortionate profits at the top. It’s time for Britain to learn from France and legislate against the relentless and imprudent building of supermarket giants before they are allowed to render "society" meaningless, after all.

The key difference, when it comes to supermarkets in our two countries, is the more robust French planning legislation. France appears to have more carefully contemplated the long-term impact of supermarkets on society and legislated to protect specialist and independent shops, thus avoiding many of the unhealthy, unsociable and unfair aspects of the UK’s truly supermarket swept society. There are over 80,000 independent retailers in France - more than double the number in the UK, which has a similar population.

In 1996 the French government introduced the Raffarin Law, which stated that any store larger than 300 square metres had to gain full planning consent in order to be built. Representatives from local artisans had to agree to the building of any large supermarket. It also made the building of giant hypermarkets selling non-food products like electricals and homewares extremely difficult. In the UK, planning permission is decided by the local planning authority - usually the local council – who may simply consider comments from local people and organisations. It was under New Labour that planning laws were relaxed and supermarkets became free to expand dramatically with very little forceful opposition. For example, the number of Tesco stores increased from 568 in 2000 to 2,365 in 2005 and in 2010 one of the big four supermarkets was gaining planning permission every working day of the year.

I argue the British government should introduce legislation based on the French model. When local artisans have to agree to all planning permission, local interests are protected and supermarkets are prevented from building where they will pose a potent threat to communities. Instead of towns filled with For Sale signs with local shops driven out of the market, town centres will be free to flourish with a jolly concoction of interesting independents more likely to offer personal service, retain a sense of community, attract tourists and have a reduced environmental impact.

Such legislation could also go a significant way to reducing our country’s striking income disparity. Tesco boss Philip Clarke takes home more thank £6m, whilst his lowest paid workers receive less than a living wage. Instead of a small number of supermarket owners and faraway shareholders lining their pockets with exorbitant and completely unnecessary amounts of money, shoppers could put money back into their local economy in a fairer distribution of wealth among local artisans and business leaders.

Furthermore, restricting the expansion of supermarkets has the potential to curb unemployment rates. In 2011 the Daily Mail exposed claims by supermarkets of job creation as untrue when Sainsbury’s and Tesco’s own reports revealed the number of full time jobs on offer had fallen since 2009, despite a growing number of stores. Couple this with the net effect of killing off smaller businesses and supermarkets actually cause a reduction in employment.

Tougher legislation is likely to improve public health. Supermarkets market cheap alcohol in bulk quantities which encourages binge drinking and causes pubs to close. Local shops selling alcohol at more responsible rates, unable to offer enticing deals such as three for two, provide a better context for a country supposedly trying to rid itself of its dangerous binge culture. A similar case could be made about obesity and its many related diseases. Supermarkets make junk and fast food more affordable and accessible than healthy alternatives and this must stop. Restricting their expansion would encourage people to buy more locally-sourced and less sugar-ridden, pesticide-pumped food products. France certainly has a smaller proportion of overweight people and binge drinking is unheard of in most circles.

This list of the potential advantages of a more controlled, considered and democratic planning environment is by no means exhaustive, but it gives a sense of the damage supermarkets are creating and shows why legislation is needed urgently.

After just a year living in France, it is clear French society is less blighted by obesity, binge drinking, wilting town centres and congealing social cohesion. Now whilst the reduced presence of supermarkets is not the only factor (France’s fine food culture for a start), and whilst supermarkets in France have no doubt had similarly negative effects as their equivalents in the UK, state planning legislation has played a vital part in preventing some of these social ills from going too far in the face of powerful, unremitting corporations. Whilst giant supermarkets occupy two-thirds of the grocery market in France, this figure is around 90 per cent in the UK. They have not managed to gain such a sweeping monopoly on most consumer goods and their smaller superette branches do not dominate high streets. This difference is significant when it comes to the impact on society: you see a more balanced economy, more interesting town centres and a happier, more unified society.

It’s time to take an olive leaf out of the French’s book and actively stop supermarkets seriously damaging local communities and society at large with robust legislation that prevents their ruthless and reckless expansion. It’s time to enshrine in law our commitment to prioritise our health, equality and happiness over profit.