>>CAT ruling is a great achievement - but will it lead to change?


A few weeks ago, we made the point that the OFT and its legion of nameless, faceless, shameless officials seemed to be living on a completely different planet to us. Planet Zog, as I recall. Well, this week they were all brought back down to planet Earth - with a bump - courtesy of the Competition Appeals Tribunal. So welcome back guys!
The decision of the CAT, which we cover in depth on page 28, is a massive victory for the Association of Convenience Stores and its members who brought the action. However, it is only the beginning.
The OFT must now revisit the market, look again at the evidence it has, gather new material and then decide whether to refer the grocery retail market to the Competition Commission for an unprecedented third time in six years. The OFT has been ordered to come to that decision as quickly as possible - and was pretty much told it already had enough evidence in hand.
So it’s almost certain we will get a Competition Commission inquiry. But while independents will rightly be rejoicing at this week’s amazing turn of events, I would urge caution because any such inquiry could, somewhat perversely, be an opportunity for the multiples.
Four things jump out. First, the CC has already given the supermarket chains a clean bill of health on two occasions; if yet another inquiry finds the same, that would be a massive blow for critics of big retail. Second, the CC has already made clear it doesn’t like interfering in the free market, so it will be tough to persuade it that concepts such as bans on below-cost selling are a good idea. Third, the multiples could use any inquiry as a back-door way of renewing their pressure on the Sunday trading law. Finally, some of the big boys will press the regulators to take a close look at the planning system, which, if changed, could be bad news for independents.
Further, in any CC inquiry, those representing the independent sector will have to compete with, and beat, the powerful, and very effective, lobbying machines that will be wheeled out by the multiples. Then they will have to persuade sceptical CC officials that change is needed. To do all that is a massive job and will require the independent sector to join forces - and resources - to present a truly united front. I don’t want to be the voice of gloom, but recent history suggests that just won’t happen. Not on planet Earth, at any rate.
welcome to planet earth