Back to Somersetian small-town David vs Goliath politics now, and plucky community campaign group Forehead’s ponderous, circling duel to the death with the Great Satan of retail-driven consumer-capitalism
Tesco, feckless retail juggernaut, has finally submitted an application to parachute a grimly enormous 60,000 square foot megamarket into our ailing town centre. Public opposition to the proposed development is near-universal, but in another spectacular triumph for local democracy, our corporate-pandering Tory-dominated District Council is doing everything in its power to drive the deal through.
This week outrage abounded when it emerged that Tesco had refused to pay £20,000 of the fee levied to process its planning application. The unashamedly pro-Tesco Chief Executive of the Council heroically boasted that it took him all of ‘three seconds’ to capitulate completely and pay the missing amount out of public funds, and that he’d proudly defend the decision to the hilt if the deal became public knowledge.
When said decision was made public shortly after, said Chief Executive had a sudden change of heart and dispatched a flunky to BBC Somerset Sound to strenuously deny all knowledge on air. In a pleasingly surreal twist, the usually-anodyne local DJ gloriously soared to the occasion, chewed up the council representative Paxman-style, and got him to admit that the Council had in fact paid the money, which mustn’t have won him many fans back at the office.
Tesco is the world’s third largest retailer. It’s the second most profitable after Wal-Mart, that other multinational paragon of virtue. It has total assets approaching £50 billion. It’s got 6,351 outlets worldwide, a store in every postcode in Great Britain and, in 2007, one pound in every eight spent in the UK went through one of its tills. In 2011, it made £3.7 billion of profit on £68 billion worth of worldwide sales. This year, it made £2.5 billion in the UK alone, which was widely viewed as disappointing.
And, in late 2012, it refused to pay £20,000 of planning fee for an immense superstore in a deprived small-fry post-industrial town. The store will almost certainly get the green light – local authorities are doing everything in their power to ensure it goes through – and leech millions and millions of pounds worth of profit from the local area. The grimly un-festive result was a retail giant dodging the paltry entrance fee for decades of economic parasitism, and nobly foisted the bill on the rate-payers of one of the most impoverished and neglected areas of the South West. Just another in the neverending ever-growing list of despicable practises by Tesco, Britain’s pre-eminent unscrupulous corporate leech.
When the news was announced in the Forehead shack, the ripple of disgust that shuddered through practically everyone present was something to behold. Discussion quickly went in the obvious direction – how do we respond? The only viable, remotely effective route open to us – beyond the usual impotent placard-rattling – seemed to be tackling the council through official channels. Forehead’s often wobbly but long-standing alliance with the activist wing of the town Labour Party means it can call in some favours the council chamber. Nationally, Labour’s a neoliberalised travesty that’s maybe beginning to inch in a less horrible direction under Ed Miliband. Maybe. But Forehead’s praise-worthily dedicated Labourite collaborators are probably the best weapon the organisation has. Without them, we’d be even easier for a haughty council and the facile local press to ignore.
Locally, Labour are in permanent opposition, strong in the town itself but outnumbered by Conservatives from the surrounding countryside. This has been the case since the ’70s, when our District was gerrymandered into existence to drown the rebellious townlet – once known as the ‘Red Borough’ – in a sea of Tory blue and have it be flippantly ruled from quaint villages on the Quantock hills. At present, the governing bloc of 31 Tory councillors looms over the 13 Labourites, two ex-Liberal independents and lone Lib Dem.
But, permafrosted doom and gloom aside, being the official opposition does have some benefits. One of these is being handed powers to scrutinise decisions made by the governing party. After years of bludgeoning tedium and saintly patience, Forehead’s biggest supporter within Labour, an iron-hide left-winger, has actually got somewhere long after a lot of his comrades have jacked it in out of disgust.
His sheer staying-power has seen him be made chair of the official Scrutiny Committee, with the power to ‘call in’ and examine controversial decisions made by the Council. And, with Forehead’s blessing, he’s proceeding to exactly that with the Council’s fee-waiving Tesco-appeasing shenanigans. We’ll see what happens.
Of course, with Forehead it’s brute realism all the way. The likelihood is that whatever his committee recommends, the Council will heedlessly brush it off and do what it wants anyway. But that’s not really where the potential of the institutional route lies.
The Council is arrogant, institutionally stagnant, unsurprisingly complacent since the balance of power has hardly wobbled for four decades – in short, it does what it wants. But it’s so much easier to get press coverage, and raise the profile of issues like the Tesco-sham, when you’re ‘official’ and can flaunt an impressive-sounding Council-branded label than it is when you’re a band of troublemakers meeting in a shack in the car-park of a railway station. And if we can generate enough media babble about the Tesco deal, and, in turn, get enough people angry enough about the issue, there’s a small chance that we can start making things more difficult for the unholy alliance between an international parasite and a Council that’s a disgrace to the word ‘democracy’.
And have a butchers in here for previous adventures from the hardcore Tesco-wrestlers at Forehead.