A visit to Amsterdam underlines how diminished our British cityscape has been by the unbridled spread of supermarkets. Its streets are lined with independent shops that encourage ‘square mile’ living. On foot, you can do everything from choosing a mattress to buying the family’s food, all in your local area, because neighbourhoods brim with services. Such living, breathing diversity is life enhancing.
In Britain, where supermarkets rule the roost, we have haemorrhaged too many of the indie businesses that once gave our towns and cities a sense of place. Inhabitants of these isles may have become inured to our loss, but this lack of distinctive retail life must smack Continental visitors right between the eyes. A shopping trip to the UK? I don’t think guide books will be punting that idea. If you’ve seen one British high street, you’ll have seen them all.
” A shopping trip to the UK? Guide books won’t be punting that idea”
I am just back from Belfast where this point was hammered home. The magnificent Victorian edifice that was once the Provincial Bank of Ireland on the city’s main street, Royal Avenue, is now a Tesco, and a particularly depressing Tesco at that. One window is blanked out by an ad that says Tesco ‘works with local producers’, but the word ‘baloney’ seems apt as its shelves are stacked with junky fast food and soft drinks.
Yet in Belfast you see the bones of a solution. As an antidote to a city that almost lost its retail soul, there’s St George’s Market, a handsome and enduringly practical Victorian covered market. After a campaign by Belfast City Council, traders and the public, it was restored and reopened in 1999 with lottery and environment Agency funding.
On a Saturday, traditional market stalls rub shoulders here with new wave, small producers. You can buy affordable, delicious food, browse clothing and art stalls, grab lunch and listen to live music. Every pound spent enriches the local community.
We must nurture the tenacious indie businesses we have in the UK and help fledgling ones flourish. The reinvented covered market is perfect for this purpose. Not only can it provide protection from the elements, it can also showcase a nourishing, progressive food economy.