Why big malls are bad for our local shops
Did you notice the annual profit revealed by Tesco the other day? £2.8bn. I'll write that figure out in noughts: £2,800,000,000. That's roughly a third of Northern Ireland's total public spending for our population of 1.7 million people.
It's a huge amount of money and yet Tesco reported it could have been better. Seemingly, this was not one of the best of years for its business. Indeed, Tesco was almost apologetic that its stores and supermarkets here and around the world had not hit the big three nought, nought, nought, nought, nought, nought, nought, nought, nought pounds sterling.
Tesco's gigantic profit crossed my mind as I stood in Stormont's Long Gallery last Thursday morning. No wonder a surprisingly large number of people turned up to hear of a terrible ongoing threat to our towns and villages. And, as I stood listening to the serious plight of the small shopkeepers of Ulster, one word crossed my mind about Tesco's profit. Obscene.
Now I'm sure Tesco will argue that when £2.8bn is divided by all the thousands of stores they have opened globally, the profit margin in each is tight and modest. Maybe it is. But that's cold comfort set against the impact which Tesco and other out-of-town superstores are having on town and village life across this island and in Britain.
Imagine a Northern Ireland where 42% of our villages had not one single shop. Imagine streets near you without a single grocery, newsagency, or butcher. No local shops. No local services. Just 'For Sale' and 'To Let' signs everywhere.
Imagine 700 shops closing in Ulster in the next five years and 7,000 people losing their jobs.
Imagine the town centres of places like Antrim, Ballymena, Ballyclare, Ballycastle, Banbridge and Larne decimated. Imagine 8.5m square feet of store space being given planning approval in a period of only six years in Northern Ireland and hardly any big store ever being refused permission to forge right ahead with its development.
Imagine that was the case, no matter where they wanted to build, no matter what the dreadful impact on nearby community life. Imagine people, in a society which is living longer and growing older, who are unable to drive or have access to public transport, having no nearby shops or services to support their needs.
The truth is there is no need to imagine. Walk down the main streets of some of our most historic towns and villages and you can see much of this happening with your very own eyes. Already, 42% of small English towns and villages no longer have a shop of any kind and we are heading in the same direction.
There is no need to imagine because much of it is reality already, or will be within a few years. The truth is that what has happened and what is happening to our town and village lifestyle in this province amounts to a scandal. We have been powerless under direct rule to stop it. We have even contributed to it by our own enthusiasm for supermarket shopping.
As I left last Thursday's meeting, I spotted the Minister for the Environment, Arlene Foster, posing for photographs on the steps of the Great Hall. I almost felt like tapping her on the shoulder and suggesting she should have been upstairs to hear at first hand how the environment in her charge is being damaged day and daily by long outdated and quite inadequate planning guidelines.
She might argue that to have been present would have compromised her independence, but this is an issue where not only Ms Foster, but all the politicians at Stormont must take a stand and get off their fences. They talk a lot about protecting and preserving their culture and heritage. What are they doing about the culture and heritage of our towns and villages? To date, it appears, very little and far from enough.
The Department of the Environment has granted planning approval in the past six years for 8.5m square feet of retail space, the equivalent of nearly 300 superstores each of 30,000 square feet. Superstores have been able to open just about anywhere they chose. Why?
The suspicion is that the planning services have run scared of any legal challenge should they refuse or restrict planning approval. Incredulous as it may seem, only one major application has been turned down in six years.
It is seven years since new stricter planning guidelines were drawn up but never activated.
Instead they have gathered dust ever since in some Stormont pigeon-hole. It is to the shame of successive direct rule ministers that they allowed this to happen and so raised the spectre of our town and village centres turning to wastelands.
Meanwhile, what was happening back at the direct rule ministers' homelands in England and Wales?
Answer: much tighter regulations strongly favouring town centre development before any consideration would be granted to allow developments on the edge or away from the heart of local communities. Those regulations have been force in Britain for years and they are what Northern Ireland needs now. Of course, years too late as a consequence of Direct Rule but better late than never.
In hindsight, the big boys — Tesco, Sainsburys and the rest — could hardly have believed their luck when they were introduced to Northern Ireland. Here was a place coming out of a depressing conflict. Never mind the consequences on local retailers, the arrival of Britain's household shopping names signalled that we were a normal society.
Direct rule ministers at Stormont drooled at the prospect, even if it ran counter to the changes they knew were being introduced in retail planning in their own constituencies back home.
We are all guilty, thronging the superstore car parks in our thousands, leaving behind the small shops that were so much part of our upbringing. Now we know there is a huge if unquantifiable price to be paid. It is much greater than even Mr Tesco's £2.8bn.
It is the future quality of life of our local communities, which is what so much of this island's charm and culture is about.
What is particularly tragic is that many of the people I am trying to defend and support in this article, met and faced down the terrible consequences of terrorist bombs in shopping streets across Northern Ireland.
They were in the front line every day and many paid the price of lost business and even lost lives. But no sooner was that bomb threat lifted and the security barriers removed from their streets, than they face potentially greater destruction and permanent damage to their businesses. Who is to save our towns and villages from such social and cultural devastation? Every one of us, not least Ms Arlene Foster, the Department of Regional Development and the entire Stormont Executive, should join the campaign to save our town and village centres.
We have something special here that is worth protecting.
If we don't wake up and smell the supermarket coffee soon, the very heart of Ulster will become a 21st century social desert.