The Rise of Localism?

Coffee cupsA couple of days ago I read an interesting piece over on the BBC News website about Totnes in Devon; the town is soon to be home to a new branch of the national chain Costa Coffee.

Now Costa Coffee is a brand that is well known in the UK with some 1,375 shops in this country, and some 800 stores abroad; so what’s so special about it that this proposed coffee shop in a southwest town makes the headlines over at the BBC?

Well, Totnes in Devon apparently has a bit of a reputation for its independent shops. To exemplify this – two years ago Totnes made the news with a campaign to keep big stores out of the town and five years ago Totnes was the town on the verge of launching its own currency.

Both these stories fall under the mantle of “localism” and it seems that this Devon town is well aware of its identity and is fiercely proud of it. But these aren’t simply issues of local pride, there’s a firm economic basis to their approach too.

Plugging the Leaks

The No to Costa campaign, set up to fight the expansion of the global coffee chain into Totnes, mentions a project by the New Economics Foundation called Plugging the Leaks. The premise goes something like this:

Imagine the local economy as a bucket. If someone has £5 and spends it in the local grocers, the £5 stays in the bucket. But other activities, such as paying utility bills, or spending money in out-of-town stores, causes money to leak out of the bucket, away from the community. By plugging the leaks in the bucket, we can keep money flowing within community and create strong local economies.

The NEF recognise that there may be concerns about creating “isolated communities” but what they say they’re doing is challenging mainstream thinking. Where national and global brands often state that they will be “creating X amount of local jobs” whenever they propose a new shop or store in a town in this country, the profit from those “local” nodes will ultimately feed back to a central hub and to out-of-town shareholders.

In addition, aside from the positives of job creation, the flip side of allowing big names into town centres include “killing off the independents” with their economies of scale, turning character places into “clone towns” and limiting real choice and diversity.

As I’ve stated elsewhere in this blog, I heard “straight from the horse’s mouth” the CEO of our own local council say he didn’t want this to be another clone town (Aldershot & Farnborough) and yet the latest publicity about a new shopping mall in Aldershot boasts a string of all-too-familiar high street chains.

Back to Totnes

What’s happened in Totnes is that their local South Hams District Council have, against the wishes of many locals, voted to allow the Costa Coffee store to be built in the town. In a town of just over 23,000 people (population figures from 2009) there were 5,455 signatories to keep the coffee chain out of Fore Street. The Beeb is reporting that there are already 41 independents selling coffee in the town, so why do they need another one?

What’s particularly irked the locals goes back to what the Prime Minister, David Cameron, said in the Portas Review of the High Street:

For our high streets to thrive they must offer something new and different. 
But for this to happen it is local people who must take control, developing the vision for the future of their high streets and putting their energy and enthusiasm into making it a reality.

The No to Costa campaign even spoke with a planning expert who said that there was a very good case against the proposed chain under the National Planning Policy Framework. And yet, despite the local energy and enthusiasm, only 6 local councillors voted against the coffee chain’s expansion into the Devon town whilst 17 voted for.

What Now for Independent Retailers?

Totnes is just one relatively high profile example but a local businessman who runs a coffee van  here in Farnborough had a similar issue at the beginning of the year. When Paul Watts, the owner of Espresso Espress enquired about a pitch at the nearby Farnborough Gate, he was told that there was a rather healthy flow of traffic and high footfall at the retail park.

He paid for his pitch, 12 months in advance, and then sat back and watched as the numbers fell way below expectations. Not only were the figures he’d been led to believe were healthy actually very wrong but he heard that there were plans approved for a Costa Coffee shop to be built on the very same retail park.

Needless to say he terminated his contract on the grounds that he’d been so seriously misinformed and now the new branch of Costa Coffee looks pretty busy – That would have had a serious impact on his trade, even if the traffic and footfall numbers had been true.

What does he do now? Well, he’s been in the coffee business for over 20 years and his coffee is great. He works hard, he’s diversified to offer snacks, cold drinks, hot food and milk shakes. He repairs and rents coffee machines, consults and trains baristas and does a nice line in event coffee. He’s built up a great reputation and the business ticks over on the back of his efforts

And what about the town in Devon? Totnes parodied the look of a Danny Boyle film and based the visuals of its campaign on the Trainspotting film. Calling it Clonestopping, the town also had a two-week coffee festival to show off its vibrant and thriving coffee culture.

Now if all of this country’s local councils would listen to their local communities, help to defend small independent retailers and allow them to flourish then we’d have a great many healthy local economies. The bigger picture needs to be looked at and the promise of a big chain creating a few jobs must be balanced against the effects on the current and future local environment.

I’ve seen first hand some of the benefits of globalisation but there is a great deal of mileage still to be had out of localisation too.

By is4profit editor Paul Mackenzie Ross

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