Friday 29 July 2011

Do Welsh market towns have a future without a Tescobury's?

A stormy meeting took place in Llandeilo a couple of nights back to discuss an application by Sainsbury's to build a supermarket on the edge of town, and both Newcastle Emlyn and Narberth have been locked in similar battles for the last couple of years. A decision on the Newcastle Emlyn application, which has been on slow-burn for the last 18 months, is now expected by early September.

Both Narberth and Llandeilo have successfully reinvented themselves in the last few years and built a reputation based on the quality, range and choice of their shops. There are signs that Newcastle Emlyn, which staged a very successful food festival earlier this summer, could be heading down the same route.

Where that road leads was shown by a documentary on towns on BBC2 last night, where the presenter Nicholas Crane, took an extended look at Ludlow.

Ludlow is larger than Llandeilo, Narberth or Newcastle Emlyn, and it has a very rich architectural heritage, but like its smaller Welsh cousins it is off the beaten track and not close to any major towns or cities. Another thing they all have in common is that they have very few of the chain stores which so dominate other towns in Wales and England. Even better, Shropshire County Council is also currently investing a lot of money in schemes to revive its market towns.

Ludlow does have a Tesco, but the supermarket was built only after a battle lasting some 9 years, with the supermarket group having to adapt the design of its store to make it blend in with the rest of the town. What the long-term effects of Tesco's arrival will be in Ludlow remain to be seen.

The three Welsh market towns all have existing small-scale supermarkets, with Newcastle Emlyn (population around 1,500) boasting a Co-op, a large Spar and a CK's supermarket, as well as a large number of independent food retailers. We even have a fish monger.

There is no doubt that Ludlow is quite an upmarket place nowadays, but the range of shops and the strong local attendance at the recent food festival, show that small towns in less favoured areas like Newcastle Emlyn can survive and prosper, and with fuel prices soaring, people are starting to realise that a long round trip to a large supermarket can end up costing more than shopping locally.

So wouldn't it be great if Carmarthenshire and other Welsh counties took a look across the border and decided that, rather than more and more Tesco's, Sainsbury's and Morrison's, it would be better to invest relatively small sums in helping out their market towns and encourage more farmers' markets and local producers to create more jobs and retain more wealth in the area.

We live in a part of the world which produces some of the best meat and dairy products you can buy anywhere, and we could become a lot more self-sufficient in fruit, vegetables and other staples. Both the FUW and the NFU are missing a trick here.

Next time you go to one of the big supermarkets, have a good look and see how much of the food on sale came from within a 5, 10, 20, 50 mile radius of where you are. Most likely next to nothing.

Good luck, Llandeilo. As recent cases have shown, Carmarthenshire's planning department is running scared of having to fight planning appeals even when the applicants are two local women. So don't bet on even a token show of backbone when faced with a mega bucks corporation.

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