And what better way to hail the New Year’s bounteous arrival than with the tale of another doomed-heroic charge against corporate unaccountability by small-town Somerset’s very own community Light Brigade, Forehead.
Another rain-lashed winter’s evening on the Somerset Levels, another town hall meeting about Tesco. For once, it wasn’t left to a rag-tag bunch of community activists to drag council apparatchiks and supermarket big-wigs into the same capacious room as a crowd of fiery locals. This time the gathering was council-organised, designed, apparently, to help the councillors who would eventually approve or deny Tesco’s superstore bid come to an educated decision.
Council heavyweights were out in force – the Heads of Corporate Strategy, Highways, Environmental Health, and Planning had shuffled in to face the music, the latter distractingly bearing the voice, mannerisms and a truly disconcerting physical likeness to TV’s Paul O’Grady.
The Tesco contingent was sociologically fascinating – a bouncy-haired good cop who looked like he’d probably flip-flopped around Peru drilling wells before he sold his soul, the Big Boss-cum-bad cop, Tesco’s Corporate Affairs Manager for the South West, who endured the proceedings with barely concealed disdain, and an emotionless robo-cop, Tesco Development Executive, standard-issue Oxbridge drone and all-round clunking iron fist of the outfit.
The resulting meeting was very strange. Townspeople had been encouraged to submit questions beforehand, Tesco and/or the Council would answer them, and the all-powerful Development Committee would sit and listen. The catch was that the public wouldn’t be allowed to speak. At all. The hall was full, including many if not all of those who had sent in questions, but their words would be falteringly spoken for them by the Chair while they sat in silence.
If the muted questioner was unhappy with the answer, or thought the individual in question had wriggled out of answering at all, they could do precisely nothing about it. So much for helping the relevant Committee make an informed decision about the pros and cons of the Tesco bid. If the Council had its way, the supermarket cheerleaders could spout any old flimsy propaganda and be let off scot-free.
Luckily, what could’ve been a patience-fraying legislative floor-show sponsored by Tesco didn’t quite turn out how the council intended. Not only had a number of Foreheaders and dedicated townspeople gloriously risen to the occasion, providing articulate, exhaustively-researched questions, but the boisterous public gallery wouldn’t be denied its right of reply.
Whipped up by Forehead members, the unruly crowd effectively overrode the Chair and policed the meeting itself – if one of the panel dodged a question, they wouldn’t led the meeting proceed until they’d properly answered. Eventually, the council gave up protesting and just got on with it. In our tepid, bureaucratic, do-what-you’re-told-to age, it’s pathetically exciting when people start throwing their democratic weight around. Not quite the Paris Commune, but pleasing nonetheless.
The questions were earnest, detailed and scrupulously well-researched. The answers, by contrast, were dismal.
The council bods could’ve stayed at home, said “we believe the proposals comply with our guidelines” into a tape recorder and sent a Galapagos monkey to play it at random intervals and the meeting wouldn’t have been any less meaningful an exchange of ideas.
Tesco’s representatives weren’t any better. Their blank-eyed mantra was that their store would be “good for the town”. They flaunted the tiniest acts of courtesy – making the proposed store’s roof a bit shorter so it wouldn’t completely obliterate half the town’s view of a nice church spire, for example – as if they demonstrated Mother Teresa-grade saintly generosity. And if anyone tried to raise the fact that a solid majority of local people think another supermarket would be disastrous for the town, they point-blank refused to compute the information.
Thanks to the boisterous tenacity of the public gallery, though, we did manage to glean the following bits of information.
Firstly, most importantly, and least surprisingly, we learned that the proposed store would provide far fewer jobs than originally stated. Tesco first announced they would be creating 450 new positions (supermarkets don’t create jobs, they force smaller competitors to shed staff and close but we’ll worry about that another time). As their bid looked more and more likely to breeze through the council planning process, those figures were slowly but surely revised downwards.
“By the time it opens, just how many jobs will there be?” asked one Foreheader. Bouncy Hair replied that the store would now employ just 260 people. The Big Boss chipped in to apologise on Tesco’s behalf for their earlier “overestimation”-cum-calculated jobs carrot. Embarrassingly, the council’s head of strategy’s had quoted the 450 figure earlier in the meeting.
We learned that basically all of Tesco’s populace-wooing ‘guarantees’ – like free parking at the store to encourage people to shop elsewhere in the town centre – were meaningless. Asked by two Forehead-allied Labour councillors whether any of these promises would be backed up in writing, Home Counties-a-tron bluntly replied in the negative. Tesco could and inevitably would renege on them the minute their PR value had expired.
The answer was the same when someone naively asked whether Tesco would consider compensating a nearby shopping centre that would inevitably suffer huge losses if the planned store got the go ahead. No, bleeped the Tesco man-machine, “we have no relationship with or responsibility to any other shopping centre”.
There were other highlights – for the first time, the council admitted that an Asda development that it pushed through in similar circumstances about ten years ago ended up further damaging rather than rejuvenating an ailing part of town.
But, typically, for the petty thrill of watching the plebs rattle the complacently powerful, the meeting ultimately just showed how powerless we are to stop the Tesco bid comfortably rolling to victory.
The whole four-hour slog was meaningless, really – it didn’t amount to anything. For anything meaningfully democratic or consultative to come of it, there would have to be at least a chance that the council would change its mind. As it happened, from the minute Tesco expressed an interest in the site, it was essentially a done deal. Even if the council wasn’t dominated by big business evangelists in the Tory Party who openly resent sharing their district with a grubby little post-industrial town, the planning system would still be heavily biased towards unstoppably wealthy corporations like Tesco.
As things stand, our local government has basically become a branch of the Tesco PR operation – during the meeting, council chiefs were incensed when an earnest Green Party member called Allan dared state the obvious by suggesting Tesco’s business practises might be “unfair”. He was thoroughly admonished for his blasphemy.
Given this dismal state of affairs, meetings like this, and practically all attempts at ‘public consultation’, just let a council bureaucrat tick the ‘accountability’ box on the planning application form.
If real democracy is gauged by how much meaningful control people have over their lives and the institutions that supposedly represent them, in hell-in-a-hand-cart Somerset just like austerity Britain more generally, we’ve got laughably, weepably little of it.
Forehead is a community action group fighting to defend a small Somerset town from corporate ransacking and council unaccountability. Unsurprisingly, it isn’t actually called Forehead – its real name is the name of the town with Forward! rousingly appended. But since it’s Bemolutionary policy not to identify the town in question in case stray Tesco-bots or council flunkies find their way here and get wind of what the group might be planning, Forehead it is. You can spank your mouse here to read about the previous adventures of Forehead.