Cameron’s no help against the Costa Coffee colonists
|20 August, 2012||Posted by notocosta under Campaign news, Press|
By Minette Marin, Sunday Times 19.08.12
The ancient and beautiful small town of Totnes in Devon is twinned with Narnia. So, at least, says a municipal sign on its outskirts that has been defaced to make that claim. Anyone who knows Totnes will smile and agree. It is a place that does seem rather like an old-fashioned storybook idyll., and walking around its unspoilt street is like stepping back unexpectedly in time to a strange and gentler world.
Totnes has for years been a centre for alternative and independent spirits of the old hippie persuasion, whose tastes run to vegan food, tantric yoga and crystals. Close by is the artistic community of Dartington, of extremely liberal tradistions. There are almost no modern chain stores or big brands in Totnes, merely an interesting and quirky collection of shops and cafes, mostly run by local characters, along a beautiful high street lined with fine ancient buildings going down towards the wide River Dart. It is like nowhere else and it is for this that tourists have loved it.
However, the winds of commercial change are blowing around south Devon: Costa Coffee is coming to Narnia-on-the-Dart. Earlier this month, in the face of furious opposition and even though there are already more than 40 places serving coffee in this small town, South Hams district council agreed to allow the Costa chain to open a branch on a prime site. It is, or ought to be, obvious why this is a bad thing.
The big brand outlets that make high streets much the same all over the country drain character and personal continuity from a place – the things that are often most valuable about it. It might not seem too bad to have one new standardized coffee bar, but it has usually been followed by a colonization of the indigenous culture and the decay of local businesses. What disappears is a sense of belonging to somewhere particular, or the pleasure of visiting somewhere that is not like everywhere else. That was the original joy of travelling and tourism.
Well aware of this, 5,749 people of Totnes, three-quarters of the town’s population of 7,500 signed a petition against Costa’s application and are demonstrating and planning boycotts. All in vain.
Almost all the South Hams councillors, including the four from the town itself, voted in favour of Costa Coffee, and Totnes is now on the way to becoming a tourist town like any other. That’s one of the problems of depending on tourism. All too often tourists prefer what is familiar, such as Costa, whether or not it is any better. This is the international curse of McDonald’s.
The sad little story in Totnes is just another skirmish in a modern war – it is the struggle of the local against the global, the clash of the requirements of the public good against the forces of commerce, the battle between overmighty powers government and the overmighty powers of the free market, between the tiny local enterprises and the huge international conglomerates, between people’s wishes and the profit motive, between minority preferences and the mass market of preferences, between the fauns and dryads of Narnia and the controlling wintry White Witch of multinational commerce.
This is a battle that has become newly disturbing and newly debated, in which it is never easy for a fair-minded person to take sides, or always the same side. One could say, for instance, that the arrival of multinational companies and international competition has at least improved the filthy coffee and ghastly food that were standard features of British towns and holiday resorts in the post-war years.
All the same, if there is any point in protesting, I am against the Starbuckery and Tescoisation of every town. Incidentally, Tesco is getting rather furtively into ‘artisan’ coffee shops, having taken a 49% share in the Harris and Hoole group, with a first shop opening in Amersham, Buckinghamshire, this month.
It is awkward for me because my default position is in favour of competition and the free market. In theory, Costa Coffee or anyone else should be allowed to sink or swim in the dangerous waters of commerce. If it provides a more desirable service it will swim, and some of the current outlets, with their quaint names such as the Totnes People’s Café, Food for Thought and the Fat Lemon Café, may lose a lot of custom. People getting off the tourist boats will flock to the nearby Costa and most tourists seem to be oddly unadventurous.
In practice no one really wants this, except Costa. If localisation means anything, it means the council should have stopped this.
How sick everyone must be of the promises from all the parties and from this government to foster localisation and the big society with the Localism Act and the National Planning Policy Framework. Can it all be entirely meaningless?
When most people, as in Totnes, are greatly opposed to something, how can it be right for that thing to happen anyway?
In this case the council pretty much said in its report, correctly, that its hands were tied. This was an infuriating reason.
Apparently, although most local opposition was specifically to Costa’s application for planning permission, that is not a material planning consideration under current council regulations. Permission depends on the use, not on the user. And the council cannot be swayed by the question of who the user is. Why not? Surely the identity of the user is material to local feeling and to the whole question. The regulations are just daft.
What is more, the owner of the premises in this case – an out-of-town landlord called London & Western Holdings – said through its estate agent that it was not prepared to support applications from independent shops since it needs “strong covenants”.
Whatever that may mean (in effect it would only go for a chain), it is clearly discrimination against independent local shops. That is the stuff of localism, surely. So it is odd that it is legally acceptable. It should not be. Councils should not permit it and the regulations of statutory requirements should be changed to prevent it.
Why not give councils the power to do what local voters want, or otherwise why not stop making empty promises? Either you empower local people or you do not. The rest is hypocrisy and the permanent, totalitarian winter of the White Witch.