A recent report from the New Economic Foundation warned against the demise of the high street and the creation of "ghost town Britain", where local amenities and shops have disappeared. There is a parallel and equally pressing danger: that we are creating what could be termed "anytown Britain", where local colour and community spirit is eroded,and replaced with replica homogenised development.
This phenomenon affects rural and urban areas equally and no area of the country seems immune. As the foundation notes, transport, planning and enterprise policies are all at fault in some way for the high street demise. However, as grocery stores are more often than not the anchors of retail developments, it is incumbent upon the whole sector to help stall the onward march of the identikit high street.
Of course, we have to accept a certain degree of sameness in the appearance of retail developments. There need to be recognisable brands and logos. Equally, as a by-product of efficient distribution processes, the range and type of produce offered is going to be similar from place to place.
Having said that, there is a great deal that can be done to individualise stores and make them relevant to a community. One way is to have store managers drawn from the community and who see themselves as valued servants to that area, and not as placemen from a head office with one eye on the next, perhaps more lucrative posting. In the Republic of Ireland, Musgrave ­ Budgens' parent company ­ has achieved this through the development of a highly successful franchise model, where the combination of entrepreneurship and community knowledge has proved to be an unbeatable combination. By linking the economic success of a store directly to the health of a community, one simultaneously benefits both.
It is good to see the bigger chains back rowing with the tide of community focused stores, having spent much of the recent past taking their operations in the opposite direction. Much has been made of Budgens' concerns with the Tesco acquisition of T&S Stores, as if we were jealously guarding the convenience store market from the bigger supermarkets and maintaining the strict distinction between the sectors.
Nothing could be further from the case. I have always believed that the incoming tide of competitive forces will raise the game for all players. However, we need to be sure that the tide is not, in fact, a tsunami. I am still not convinced that the increased presence of Tesco in the convenience store market will not place undue pressure on suppliers, who will find their margins squeezed by Tesco's muscular buying power and will pass this on to consumers in other stores through higher prices. Neither am I convinced that the grocery market can still be narrowly categorised as supermarkets versus convenience stores. Surely it is more relevant to today's conditions to talk about top-up shopping versus one-stop shopping.
Budgens wants the Office of Fair Trading to take a wider look at the market than it was able to do in its recent review of the Tesco deal. We hope that it will conduct a market investigation, as its new powers under the Enterprise Act allow it to do. If stores are expending all their energy on struggling to stay afloat in a market biased against them, they will not be able to provide community-sensitive services. Differentiation, personal service, promotion of local produce are all, in a sense, luxury items ­ a store can only pursue them if it is not being hammered by its suppliers.
The health of the sector, and the high street, depends on the ability of all retailers to prosper in a fairly competitive environment.