David Cameron’s vision for a ‘Big Society’ has met with scepticism and confusion, not least from retailers and manufacturers who, for years, have been engaged in community and corporate social responsibility-based initiatives.

But it’s the Localism Bill that provides most food for thought. Nick Hughes reports

It’s almost a year since David Cameron started out on his quest for a Big Society and the concept continues to prove a hard sell.

Widely derided for being abstruse and lacking in substance, had Tesco stuck it on a shelf marked ‘government ideologies’, one suspects Big Society would have failed its first range review.

Pinpointing exactly what Big Society is is a challenge in itself; establishing what the agenda means for the grocery retail sector is even tougher.

At its most simplistic level, the Big Society has two aims: a reduction in the nanny state; and a simultaneous inspiration and empowerment of “individuals, families, communities and charities” in Cameron’s words “coming together to solve [society’s] problems”.

The role of business in Cameron’s initial vision set out in a Hugo Young speech in 2009 was curiously absent, but through the Responsibility Deal and the alternative funding arrangements for Change 4 Life, it’s become patently obvious that businesses, most definitely, will be expected to do their bit. And on at least one level, supermarkets, independent retailers, manufacturers and even wholesalers will not be unduly bothered by this.

Whether part of an extensive corporate social responsibility programme, in the case of large companies such as Tesco, Diageo and Kraft; or through the natural community spirit of a village store or Post Office, this industry was contributing to the Big Society years before the term was even invented, says Morrisons CEO Dalton Philips.

“We build stores specifically for the local community that’s Big Society. We stock products that reflect the ethnic mix of the local population that’s Big Society. We arrange events on the parking lots of our stores for charities that’s Big Society. And we’re doing our bit to bring real skills into society. The supermarket sector has been at the forefront of this.”

Whatever the reservations over the term itself, supermarkets such as Morrisons have wasted no time showing they are on board with the PM’s vision. Morrisons has pledged to give 10% of its new jobs to “vulnerable” people, including the homeless and people battling addictions. Sainsbury’s has explicitly pledged its support for the Big Society by launching a scheme whereby it seconds managers to work full-time within their communities.

Tesco held 100 Community Fairs last summer in an effort to bring local people together (see above). Supermarkets habitually contribute to community projects when they are looking to build in a new area, be it through constructing new schools and health centres or improving local trading environments. It ingratiates them with local people, but more than that, such benevolence can be crucial in swinging planning decisions with local councils.

It’s only when it comes to the Localism Bill in many senses the legal framework underpinning the Big Society and currently awaiting the Committee’s report in Parliament that the situation starts to get interesting. Under the proposals set out in the Localism Bill, local councils will have an even greater say in planning decisions. But so too will local people.

The Bill would introduce a new right for communities to draw up a “neighbourhood development plan”, effectively giving local people the right to decide where they think new houses, businesses and shops should go and what they should look like.

“Neighbourhood planning will give real powers to people,” says a spokesman for the Department for Communities and Local Government. “Parish councils and new neighbourhood forums of local people will lead the way in shaping their community. If local people then vote in favour of new ‘Neighbourhood Plans’ in local referendums, councils will have to adopt them.”

In other words, decisions that affect local people will be taken by the people themselves, not by outsiders with a vested interest. Theoretically, if you want to take over a local pub or post office you can. Similarly, if you don’t fancy a Tesco at the end of your street you can prevent it and open your own co-op instead.

So will local people come together to thwart the expansion of the supermarkets? Surely the Localism Bill is bad news for supermarkets, housing developers and other out-of-town developers? Not necessarily. With a raft of legislative and financial barriers cushioning them from a locally led backlash, supermarkets are likely to find little to fear from the Big Society. Indeed, Tesco’s UK corporate affairs director David North believes “giving local people more power over planning decisions is an opportunity, not a threat” for supermarkets.

What the government fails to address is the lengths neighbourhoods must go to to get a plan to the stage of referendum.

“The Bill expressly says that you can’t simply say no to everything; you actually have to say what you want to happen,” points out one retail planning expert. Resisting the construction of a Tesco at the end of your street is not in itself a ‘plan’. In an effort to patrol Nimbyism, the government stipulates that development plans must come up with a vision for what their area should look like and ensure it falls in line with national planning policy, the local authority’s strategic vision for the wider area and with other legal requirements.

This is easier said than done. When asked how the concept of neighbourhood planning could function effectively in relation to national planning policy, which is currently under review, the retail planning expert answers glibly: “It can’t.”

In retailing, local authorities that create local retail policies that don’t comply with national policies are effectively trumped. Neighbourhood plans could be trumped by both. “The guiding principle of planning law is a presumption in favour of sustainable economic development,” says Shane Brennan, head of public affairs at the ACS. “If it’s a Nimby plan, in other words planning against development rather than for it, it will be thrown out.”

Even assuming a community conceives a viable strategy for sustainable development of its neighbourhood, there are financial barriers to overcome. The government estimates the cost of putting together a plan will range from £5,000 to £250,000. Exactly where the funding for that will come from remains to be seen. In a submission to the Localism Bill committee’s consultation, the BRC states that “it is difficult to envisage how parish councils will have the resources to fund anything but simple neighbourhood development plans”.

One option would be for private enterprise to help fund plans. North says Tesco would welcome the opportunity “to demonstrate genuine commitment to communities” at an early stage of the planning process. “If the Localism Bill encourages more open and earlier engagement with local people preferably as part of a planning process that is more transparent and less prone to delay it will turn out to have many advantages,” he says.

But the involvement of big businesses in drawing up neighbourhood plans will be unpalatable to many. Even though, under planning law, a supermarket could not stipulate the construction of one of its own stores in a plan unless it has already secured the site, Brennan believes “it might not be in the best interests of the area” to have companies with vested interests helping to fund plans. “The worry is that the money vacuum gets filled by developers who have an interest in getting something built,” he says.

The Localism Bill sets down a requirement for local councils to provide “technical advice and support” as neighbourhoods draw up their plans. But as Brennan points out “there’s no money for that”. With local council budgets slashed by about 25%, their ability to do, as Brennan puts it, “big, creative things” with its planning policy are severely restricted.

Councils, he fears, will see greater power as a means of making money. “Some see their job not [in terms of] the balance of retailers in their area, but about short-term negotiation with Tesco and Sainsbury’s and whether or not they’re going to build a primary school or a health centre. The risk is that you have councils using localism as a way of maximising returns for their area.”

Even in the event that neighbourhood plans get the necessary finance, meet all the criteria, and go to local referendum, history also suggests supermarkets don’t always end up on the losing side. North points to a dispute over the building of a new Tesco in Sheringham, which last year ended in a public referendum, with residents asked to decide between a Tesco and a Greenhouse Community Project with a new Waitrose. Tesco won, supporting North’s view its plans were opposed “by a small vocal minority”.

Setback for The People’s Supermarket
For all the barriers and legal uncertainties, it would be unfair to dismiss completely the effect Big Society might have on grocery retail. With the government encouraging more community ownership of local shops through measures such as Community Right to Buy, and extensions to business rate relief, the ACS hopes mutual ownership models “will have a place especially in communities where the market can no longer sustain a private business that meets the community’s needs”.

However, the significant setback last week for The People’s Supermarket when the country’s only member-owned and operated social enterprise supermarket was ordered to pay a £78,000 rates bill after Camden County Council refused to grant it charitable status highlights the difficulties that lie ahead for the Big Society ideology. David Cameron visited the store, in Lamb’s Conduit Street, just north of Holborn, in February this year, and flagged it up as a shining example of what a business model of the Big Society ideology could look like. It even went up against Tesco in the battle to secure the site.

“Our argument to the landowner was a regeneration argument and we also gave them quite favourable terms for our occupancy,” recalls co-founder and urban regeneration expert David Barrie. “Fortunately their plans for the area involved having a sustainable urban community.”

But thanks to the rates blow, co-founder Kate Bull says the co-op will now have to cut back on its expansion and sustainability plans, including greener fridges, air conditioning and an electric van, as well as an apprentice scheme. “It’s a shame really as our training programme would have given four more local people gainful employment and a recognised qualification.”

Co-founder David Barrie believes, with the right support from the government, that the People’s Supermarket retail model can be replicated across the country. The concern for the government must be that such ventures will be given short shrift by council stripped of funds. Liverpool City Council, for example, has already withdrawn from its involvement in a Big Society pilot following cuts to its budget.

As for supermarkets, the security they offer to landlords, and the complexities of the Localism Bill and how it is underpinned by national planning policies suggests it will be little more than incidental to their expansion plans. “The Localism Bill might provide time-rich retired people with a new project to show how much they care for their neighbourhood,” says the retail planning expert. “But will it achieve very much? No.”

“If people want to resist supermarket development they would be better doing it through existing channels,” he adds.

Even these channels are under threat, however. With the government looking to simplify the National Planning Policy Framework, the ACS fears the Town Centre First (TCF) policy will be watered down despite the “broad support” of the BRC. How ironic it would be if a movement to promote localism is trumped at a national level. But that’s the political reality. 

Morrisons creates hope for the homeless

Twelve months ago the future looked bleak for Mark Jury.

The 22-year-old had endured a difficult childhood and things didn’t improve as he got older. After starting a college course in Leeds, he dropped out following a break-up with his girlfriend and eventually lost his council flat. For a few months he drifted aimlessly, sleeping on friends’ floors and as a result of having no fixed abode he was unable to put himself forward for any meaningful work.

But then he was thrown a lifeline from an unlikely source. Jury was fortunate enough to gain a place on a scheme in Leeds operated by Morrisons and social enterprise group Create. The name of the group is apt as Morrisons wants to create 1,000 jobs for former homeless people like Jury over the next three to five years. Jury was one of the first five graduates of the scheme to land a job at the retailer’s new store in the Harehills area of Leeds, which opened at the beginning of November.

“The scheme has been brilliant,” says Mark. “It really helped build my confidence and there are absolutely no issues with any of the other staff. We are just one of the team like everyone else.”

The scheme is being driven by Morrisons group HR director Norman Pickavance, a board member of Create who was instrumental in bringing the two organisations together. Create takes people who are looking to turn their lives around, helps them find more permanent accommodation and, most important, puts them through in-depth three-month training to get them job-ready.

The project runs a café in Leeds where the scheme’s participants learn about customer service and study for a NVQ level 1 in retail. The café also gives people the opportunity to get used to the practical issues around holding down a job, such as getting up in the morning and arriving to work on time.

“We pick it up from there,” explains Pickavance. “But there is no special treatment afforded to the people from Create. They have to apply for the job along with everyone else coming into the business and from there they are given the same training and held to the same standards as everyone else.”

Jury currently works on the hot deli counter alongside fellow Create graduate Negusso Gebreselassie, who was an electrician in his native Eritrea until he fled the conflict there in 2004 and applied for asylum in the UK. While waiting for his application to be processed he was put up in a hostel and given vouchers to buy food. Ironically Gebreselassie was familiar with Morrisons before he started working for it, because for six years this was the only store at which he could redeem his Home Office food vouchers.

After finally being granted asylum last year, and with it permission to work, he is enjoying being back in gainful employment and recommends the project to friends in a similar position. The initiative is still at its early stages but Pickavance is convinced the retailer can achieve its target of hiring 1,000 employees in the next few years, with a second wave of schemes from September looking to harness the knowhow of similar organisations to Create throughout the UK to replicate the success of the Leeds trial.

At the moment, the catalyst will be integrating staff into new store opening programmes, but Pickavance says future graduates could be employed in existing stores as well. And maybe other retailers as well?

“It would be great if more retailers were interested in doing stuff like this,” he says. “I’d love to see other supermarkets signing up.” As no doubt would the government. Conservative party chairman Baroness Warsi recently said the initiative “will make a real difference in people’s lives”.

Jury is testimony to the difference the scheme can make. He believes one of the key benefits of this particular scheme is that it helps people see things are not as bad as they might first think. “But it’s up to you if you want to change,” he adds. Just three months into his new post Jury is already talking about embarking on a bakery apprenticeship. One day he may even be a poster boy for David Cameron’s Big Society. 

Retailers setting the benchmark

Marks & Spencer
At last week’s One Day Wardrobe Clear Out, shoppers could bring old clothes to M&S stores that would be passed on to Oxfam in exchange for a £5 M&S voucher. It’s the latest stunt under the M&S Plan A blueprint for a sustainable future, for which the community is at the heart. In addition, its ‘Marks and Start’ scheme, launched in 2004, trains 650 disadvantaged people each year, with 40% going on to get a job.

The Co-operative
Mutualism was one of David Cameron’s key messages in his vision for a Big Society. The Co-op Group hopes its new Ethical Operating Plan will attract customers and staff alike. It outlines not only a commitment to ethical sourcing (including new ethical finance products) and carbon reduction targets, but increased funding for schools and co-op enterprises, with £5m a year to help fight poverty in local communities.

For the Responsibility Deal, Tesco pledged to increase the number of participants in the Cancer Research Race for Life from 700,000 to one million in 2011. It also organised 100 fairs last year and recruited 11,000 customer volunteers and staff members for various activities, from helping out at retirement homes through to clearing local canals. Its regeneration programme also trains thousands of long-term unemployed.

The most eyecatching pledge in last week’s Responsibility Deal was surely Asda’s promise not to display alcohol in store foyers from next month. But the community page on its website is choc-full of worthy initiatives, from its charity the Asda Foundation through get-fit programme Pedal Power to Tickled Pink, an awareness and fund-raising campaign for Breast Cancer Care (Asda has raised £20m for the charity).

So far this year Booths has run a Red Nose Day promotion on wine, with 10% of the sale of special bottles going to Comic Relief. It also signed up to The Prince’s Countryside Fund. The Prince of Wales’ brainchild is a collaboration of food businesses working to improve UK farming and rural community sustainability, reconnect consumers with countryside issues and support farming crisis charities.

Manufacturers’ Big Society pledges

The strapline for its Sustainable Living Plan (USLP), which launched last November, is: ‘Small Actions: Big Difference’, which certainly has a Big Society ring. But that’s hardly surprising since former UK boss Dave Lewis was so actively involved in Change 4 Life.

His replacement Amanda Sourry intends to keep up the good work. “It’s about how we partner with others to solve some of the key public health issues.”

The global tobacco giant endorses a wide range of initiatives, including disaster relief, most recently on its home turf; sponsorship of the arts such as its five-year partnership with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, which helped safeguard the popular (i.e. affordable) Friday concerts at London Festival Hall; and funding for a project distributing refurbished computers and training OAPs how to use the internet.

It’s not got the same philanthropic roots as Cadbury, but Kraft is committed to engaging in the community on a global scale: more than 20,000 staff in 56 countries were enlisted for a Global Week of Service that included creating gardens and playgrounds and assisting at food banks. Even reclusive CEO Irene Rosenfeld put in an appearance, serving food to the homeless in the UK.

As well as being a founder member of Drinkaware, Diageo supports and promotes programmes to prevent, target and tackle alcohol misuse, working with the police, local authorities, community groups and NGOs. One example is Diageo’s sponsorship of Street Pastor schemes in Nottingham, Headingley, Dunfermline and Falkirk. The pastors help out vulnerable people at night who may have had too much to drink.

Imaginative, innovative, ingenious you’d expect nothing less from Innocent, even when it comes to Big Society initiatives. Its Big Knit charity campaign, which started in 2003, is no exception. More than two million miniature bobble hats have been knitted to sit atop its smoothies, with Innocent and partner Sainsbury’s donating 25p for each behatted bottle sold. Big Knit has so far raised close to £1m for Age UK.