Green perspectives on Stockwood and Bristol. Mostly.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Every Little Helps

Keeping Money in the City: a local levy on giant supermarkets

“a classic example of trendy politics colliding with reality “ according to Gary Hopkins, but his Evening Post comment was more like a classic case of party point-scoring colliding with reality.  Maybe he feels his role in the LibDem group is being challenged

Gary was dismissing the proposal brought to last Tuesday's council by the Green group – and, on the day, roundly rejected by the other parties .

Had the other councillors accepted it, and if broad support could be shown from other councils and civic groups across the country, it would have strengthened the chances of a request to government to let councils (if they think fit) impose an 8.5% levy on the business rates payable by certain large retailers on their patch – particularly supermarkets. Government could not reject the suggestion out of hand – it must first negotiate with the Local Government Association. All being well, it would ultimately lead to the law makers allowing councils this limited discretion to raise money for public use from some of the most destructive of retailers.

Complicated, that. Clearly too complicated for Gary's LibDems, for Labour, and, of course, for the Tories. Too complicated for the council officers charged with providing an objective report to the council. And far too complicated for the Bristol Post.

Together, they rewrote the story. It became, in their view, a proposal that Bristol should now impose an 8.5% levy on all its big shops. That would send out a message that Bristol is unfriendly to business. It would induce all such shops to abandon their lucrative trade in Bristol. The poor would be then unable to buy cheap food. Even if the shops remained, the poor would pick up the tab at the tills.

Only one small part of this gross distortion did have a rationale of sorts. The council cannot at present distinguish between the 'comparison' retailers like B&Q or Harvey Nichols (not that the poor would find they'd lost much there) and the prime target, the huge and profitable food supermarket businesses.

But anyone who'd looked at the real proposal (and 'Local Works', which had prompted it) would know that legislation would be needed. That's where a distinction between the business types could be written in. It was a non-objection. And the rest was pure invention.

Fortunately, not all councils, or parties, are as blinkered as Bristol's. In Gloucester and in Torbay, it's been the LibDems who are making the running (Gary please note). In Leeds, with an overwhelming Labour majority, a similar proposal was passed with cross-party support. In Liverpool, though, it was Labour who took the supermarkets' side and killed it off

Of course, there's no reason to think that the ill-informed debate at Tuesday's meeting, with councillors voting en bloc along with their parties, reflects public opinion. It doesn't even establish council policy. It's still within the mayor's powers to sound out real public opinion, and if he can show that people would like the option of a levy, he can join other councils in seeking powers from government. That's how the Sustainable Communities Act works – by encouraging initiatives from the grass roots, to complement the usual centralist 'top-down' legislative structures.

But how to show George that Bristolians think councils should be given this power?

Writing to Mayor Ferguson is one option – you can draw on the information on the Local Works pages.

The quickest way, though, is to sign up to Charlie Bolton's petition on the council website.


between-the-lines said...

"...[L]et councils (if they think fit) impose an 8.5% levy on the business rates payable by certain large retailers on their patch – particularly supermarkets."

Sorry Pete, but I don't see how you can avoid the simple fact that a levy on supermarkets would be passed straight on to shoppers.

Like a lot of people, I have a very restricted budget available to feed myself and my family. Because of this bare economic fact I must constantly walk round to all the shops within walking distance of where I live checking their prices and buying the offers, out-of-date reduced items and supermarket own brands.

Before you trot out the familiar right-on canard that 'local' small shops owned by the petty bourgeoisie are in any way affordable, please let me assure you that that claim is complete bx. I know that for a fact, from the grassroots.

And even the cheapest food, even that, is rapidly inflating in price, soaring away from the minimal wages and benefits of us at the bottom, thanks to years of Quantitative Easing inflation and suppression of wages etc.

Oh, and while we're at it, take a look at this video from the so-called Northamptonshire Food Poverty Network to see what's wrong with the whole concept.

We're heading back to the 19th century, 'outdoor relief' and the New Feudalism at a frightening speed.

The Bristol Blogger said...

Yeah. What he said.

Stockwood Pete said...

Thanks for the link.... I'm afraid I found it more depressing than inspirational, though! What has this country come to? When's the revolution?

It makes the topic seem barely relevant. I'll have a go, anyway.

I'm sure the biggest supermarkets would, as you say, pass on the costs of a levy, same as any other cost gets externalised or else recouped at the tills. Whether they'd spread the charge across all their outlets, I've no idea. But I can't imagine it would make any detectable difference to the anyone's budget.

Reason is, we're talking about something under 0.25% of turnover (Tony Dyer's estimate, based on the Retail Survey), and that's in the biggest stores only. They're still competing on price with the other giants, and with the 'cheap' smaller un-levied supermarkets like Lidl and Aldi, and more and more with pound shops and cheap houseware stores. They can't just up the price at the till. Of course they might do it by bringing in more self-service tills, or squeezing the dairy farmers even more; but they'll be doing that anyway if they can get away with it.

The positive bit is that it would give local councils a bit more resource, a bit more discretion to use money usefully. You have to hope they'd do that... or be held to account.

In our house we've got a relatively 'expensive' food budget (that's what comes of adapting to a stereotypical 'green' diet!), but we certainly can't spend it all at specialist shops – I'm afraid Tesco, Lidl, and the Co-op all get a share. All on foot, bike, or bus pass, though. Or from the allotment.

And whatever happens in this country, food prices are going to keep rising, as demand (and resources) increase in developing countries. And that's without all the threats to overall supply.

The Bristol Blogger said...

In our household we've gone, in the space of 5 - 6 years, from purchasing organic veggie boxes to regularly buying selected 'Value' items from the big supermarkets.

If this squeeze continues we'll soon be at the stage where our kids staple diet is sliced white bread and one pound pizzas.

Your 'stereotypical green diet' is but a memory here.

Rising food prices are the issue politicians don't want to talk about.

between-the-lines said...

Thanks for replying Pete, although I'm really not convinced by such attempts to justify unjustifiable Green Party policies, however honestly meant it may be on your part as an individual.

What do you mean by "we're talking about something under 0.25% of turnover" anyway?

Of course slapping a whacking 8.5% levy onto supermarkets will affect people's budgets. 8.5% is 8.5% however you dress it up.

Interested to see that the Green Party intends to be merciful to Lidl and Aldi at least, although it doesn't look consistent. Why let some supermarkets off the hook but not others? Round my way you can hardly get space to move in the two overcrowded Aldi stores, so they are already well beyond capacity, with demand for "cheap" food spilling over.

To be honest, the GP is doing itself no favours by pandering to the anti-supermarket middle classes, foodies and well-to-do chatterati who already form most of your support. What you will do is further alienate the poorer and non-middle-class folk who you actually need if you want to claim any genuine, broad appeal.

Bashing supermarkets, and supermarket-users, makes you look out of touch.

BB "Rising food prices are the issue politicians don't want to talk about."

One of the many!

Food policy is crucial. My feminine observation is that the CEOs of supermarkets were called in a few years ago now and been told that they have, at all costs, to maintain lines of ultra-cheap Value products in order to keep the poor from getting too desperate. They are clearly subsidised. The point is to keep the 'lower orders' supplied with stodge to fill bellies and shut them up. The fact that the medium-to-long-term implications of such diet are appalling, chronic ill-health such as diabetes, heart attack, cancer etc is irrelevant, as far as the ruling myopic outlook goes.

Thanks be to our more enlightened ancestors for allotments! They are the only way forward.

Stockwood Pete said...


Thanks for the thought-provoking comment.

I got the 'under 0.25%' figure from something that Tony Dyer had researched. If I remember right (and sometimes I don't!) it was based on the Bristol Retail study figures giving the turnover at the tills, and relating that to the business rates that the supermarkets pay. As I understand it, that would mean a price increase at the checkout of under 0.25% - and I'd hazard a guess that'll be offset by what they save on free plastic bags! Still, it does represent a price increase, as you say.

The big question is what would happen to the money, and I'm afraid the 'Local Works' campaign is rather vague about that - perhaps because it would be at local discretion. Here, the Greens put all the emphasis on helping smaller businesses thrive (which has various knock-on benefits), but there's no guarantee that would happen, and not much debate as to what else might be the best use of the cash. Perhaps it should offset the increase in allotment charges.... we've just got our invoice ;-)

If the whole thing comes across as just an attack on the big supermarkets, then it was poorly pitched – and it gave the Post and others the opportunity to present it that way. It's supposed to be a positive, a public good!

between the lines said...

OK. I appreciate that you're only trying to defend a Green Party policy here ... I know, I know, that's what being in a political faction does, it forces you to toe the line regardless of rhyme or reason, but it's never to late to give up ...

Para 1 explanation still doesn't make any sense and still looks like a fudge to get around the fact that an 8.5% levy on Tesco's turnover has got to be paid by someone. Do you have a link to Tony's initial reasoning?

Para 2. Why do you think that small businesses are some kind of magic ointment? In my experience a lot of small businessmen/women are at least as bad as big business, if not worse. More exploitative, less careful of health and safety, environmental regs etc.

Can't agree that allotment charges are too high. I'm paying £15 pa for 5 poles, and when it's up and running you can grow hundreds of pounds worth of fruit and veg every year on that. It's a bargain, and one that's already subsidised by other council tax payers incidentally - take heed pork barrelers of St Werburgh's!

Finally, the whole thing doesn't just come across as an attack on supermarkets, it IS an attack on supermarkets. Your levy is intended to skew the economic playing field in favour of your friends in small business. You've already said so yourself.

Worse than that for the Green Party, it also very much comes across as an attack on supermarket users, ie voters. A number 1 electoral no-no.

And please don't make the unworthy suggestion that I, or anyone else for that matter, need to read any newspaper to come to that conclusion. I can work it all out for myself. Can't you?

Can you not see how bad the whole idea looks, Pete?

Stockwood Pete said...


No, the proposal is NOT a levy on turnover. It's to give a local power to increase the biggest supermarkets' business rates by a further 8.5% of RV (ie 8.5p in the £) - which, assuming they pass the cost on to their customers, amounts to a price rise of maybe 0.25% - probably varying over their product ranges.

I suppose that in practice all the public benefits (and a few private ones, like new stadia) funded by supermarkets do, ultimately, get paid through the tills by their customers. The proposed levy would be no exception – but it seems to have provoked a storm of opposition that we never got when, for instance, the Post headlined “Council to benefit from £1 million as new Sainsbury's approved”, referring to the obligation to pay the CIL (Community Infrastructure Levy) on the Horfield superstore.

I have to admit that I wouldn't have been blogging about this if I wasn't provoked by some of the rubbish being spoken by the Post, council officers, and certain politicians. The subject is outside my usual comfort zone, I'm happier campaigning about more obviously 'green' issues. As for small businesses... for a long while now I've favoured the co-operative model over and above the individual entrepreneur who's in it to screw the most out of his/her customers and staff. That said, I know few such businesses, most are simply to trying to make a living. Come to think of it, I don't know any retailers who are in the Green Party!

The reference to the allotment charges was tongue-in-cheek.

Incidentally, a "Comment is free" piece a couple of days ago looked at supermarket pricing practices. Worth a read?