Tesco in Woburn Sands

by Ian Short

Since January I’ve lived in Woburn Sands, on the outskirts of Milton Keynes, on the boundary of Buckinghamshire and Bedfordshire. An empty shop on the high street – previously a restaurant with the terrible name ‘Woburn Zens’ – has received the attention of Tesco, who have submitted a planning application to install one of their Metro stores there. Several of the other high street shops (including, off the top of my head, Co-op, a butcher, a baker, and another small food store) are involved in a campaign to dissuade Milton Keynes Council from allowing the plans to go ahead. Some local residents have also campaigned against the store.

I oppose the creation of a new Tesco store, so I wrote to the relevant Milton Keynes Planning Officer. Here’s my message, minus some pleasantries.

I recently moved to Woburn Sands with my family from another similar small town (Neston, Cheshire). We chose Woburn Sands precisely because of its strong sense of local community, supported by local businesses. A new Tesco would be a massive backwards step for the region. In our old town Neston, a new Sainsbury’s caused local food suppliers to close down. I’m worried that the same will happen in Woburn Sands. We absolutely don’t need a new small shop the same size as Co-op. It would be a tragedy if the Co-op came under threat: the Co-operative group is an organisation with a decent ethical base, in fitting with the community here. Tesco, on the other hand, focus on low prices and mass production, which causes harmful farming practices that reduce biodiversity and force small farms out of business.

People will no doubt shop in Tesco: it’s cheap, convenient, and they advertise a lot. And Tesco are large enough to weather competition with local businesses until the local businesses have to give way. Tesco will benefit from this application to an affluent area like Woburn Sands, but the community will not. Although we won’t move away from Woburn Sands once a Tesco opens, I will consider it a black mark on Woburn Sands when we look to buy a house within the next couple of years.

For this day and age, and particularly in comparison to Milton Keynes in general, Woburn Sands has a rich diversity of small, mostly independent shops. In some ways it is similar to my previous town, Neston. Both towns are of a similar size, and both benefit from proximity to universities (the Open University and Liverpool Veterinary School). Neston, however, has a Tesco Metro, an Aldi, and then a medium sized Sainsbury’s was introduced a couple of years ago. Sainsbury’s caused the local grocers and butchers to close down (who, in the face of competition from Tesco and Aldi, were only clinging on to existence anyway). Neston’s high street is pretty crap, and the new Sainsbury’s attracts visitors from local villages who bring traffic. I expect Tesco Metro in Woburn Sands will have a similar effect: local smaller shops will suffer, or close, and there will be more traffic.

Tesco will offer a slightly wider range of products than the local shops, and they will be cheaper. How broad a variety of products do we need in order to live happily? In my opinion, the Co-op and other smaller shops provide sufficient variety already, although a person who is used to larger supermarkets may disagree. In any case, if you are prepared to drive (and who isn’t in Milton Keynes?) then every UK shop you can think of is available within a few miles, in gargantuan size. Here’s an article in the Guardian on this kind of issue.

Tesco threatens the existing Co-op. The Co-operative group is a large democratic organisation owned by its members, which supports ethical trading. For these reasons I generally prefer to shop in Co-op than other supermarkets. Tesco is the third largest retailer in the world, and has a terrible environmental record. The most obvious reasons are that it uses large energy inefficient stores, which encourage people to travel by car, and which generate huge amounts of waste in packaging and food. The environmental effects of transportation to supermarkets are large compared to more locally based schemes. Most if not all of these criticisms could be levelled at all supermarkets, however, including Co-op.

The most significant problem with supermarkets perhaps (and this applies particularly to Tesco because of its size and philosophy) is the effect they have on farming. In order to sell cheap goods, supermarkets force farmers to compete for the lowest possible prices. This leads to budget farming: large-scale (small farms cannot compete), use of dangerous pesticides (supermarkets exploit poor countries with few regulations on pesticides), reduced biodiversity (crops of the same variety are produced, en masse), environmental destruction, huge carbon emissions (partly in transportation – again, it is cost rather than environmental impact that dictates farming practices), low wages, and poor working conditions. Essentially, the consumer may pay little, but the environment and farmer pick up the rest of the cost.

Responding to the mood in the UK, Tesco has made some efforts to improve its environmental credentials. On the other hand, the environmental movement is weaker in China, and, accordingly, Tesco has an awful environmental record over there.

The results of the planning application should be revealed within a couple of weeks, and I’ll post them here.