It’s been a good autumn for the supermarket chains in Medway. Tesco has been granted planning permission toextend its edge-of-town superstore in Strood, whilst Sainsburys has been given the go-ahead to build a supermarket complex on the Medway City Estate. Publicity for the developments has been full of the benefits of the new stores – more choice for customers, more jobs and a boost for the local economy. A trip to the supermarket is a weekly ritual for most people; for better or worse the likes of Tesco, Sainsburys and Morrisons are part of day to day life now. On the face of it, bigger, better supermarkets can only be a good thing.
But there is a dark side to the supermarket. Anyone living in Medway will be familiar with the often desperate state of the high streets in Chatham, Gillingham and Strood. Chain stores hold their own, but they are increasingly surrounded by empty shops, their boarded-up windows and ‘for rent’ signs an all too familiar sight. The number of independent, family run shops – the butchers, grocers, fishmongers, clothing and hardware stores that used to make up much of the traditional highstreet, is visibly dwindling in the face of unassailable competition from the supermarket giants.
At the same time, redevelopment of Medway’s highstreets is supposed to be a priority. The regeneration of Chatham town centre is a cornerstone of plans for the Medway Renaissance program of urban renewal. There is already competition for Chatham’s retail and restaurant trade from the Dockside outlet centre, to which will now be added the new Sainsburys superstore. Interestingly, one of the potential sites for the new out-of-town Sainsburys was in the Pentagon Centre. Against the advice of their own planning committee, the council cabinet approved the Medway City Estate site instead.
One of the reasons cited for doing so was demand for greater retail choice from residents on the Hoo peninsula. A new shuttle bus will take customers to the store, but it will not reach as far as Hoo, one of whose bus services will be diverted to the new store. Instead, the shuttle bus will take shoppers from Strood and Frindsbury, directing them away from Sainsburys’ main competitor, Tesco, and Strood highstreet. On their behalf, Tesco has offered to redevelop Strood town centre. The improvements to pavements, pedestrian access and green spaces will provide a cosmetic lift, as well as subtly directing shoppers towards the new superstore and away from Morrisons, the main competition in Strood.
There appear to be no plans to improve the site of Strood market, which remains stranded by the one way system in a cramped car park, surrounded by Morrisons on one side and Tesco on the other. Additionally, no-one who parks to shop at Matalan or B&Q on the Strood retail park will be able to use the market because there is a £60 fixed penalty for leaving the retail park. The market, one of the few local enterprises that can offer value and choice to rival the superstores, doesn’t seem to be getting the breaks on offer to its chain store competition.
The jobs created by a supermarket don’t come without a price either. For every small, independent shop that closes when its trade disappears to Tesco or Sainsburys, several people will be left unemployed. But the impact goes deeper than that. Supermarkets have national chains of supply, with their stock held at huge regional depots. Independent shops tend to have a very direct relationship with local producers, farmers and wholesalers. When a grocers or butchers goes out of business, their suppliers take a step closer to going bust themselves.
It’s not just groceries that are an issue. Strood’s new Tesco and the new Sainsburys will be competing on all fronts, with their own cafes and restaurants and expanded stores to stock clothing, electrical goods and hardware. The last family businesses in Strood doing a visibly good trade are its traditional greasy spoon cafes. Quite how they will cope when people stop at Tesco for their tea and full English remains to be seen.
Photograph (c) Lisa Dillon