Tescos and Taxis: Sanity in Cambridge Shock!

Supermarket sensation!

I had no idea local politics could be so interesting. It seems like only a fortnight ago that I mentioned the campaign against the Mill Road Tesco store:

“…the anti-Mill Road Tesco campaign … will be counter-productive as the specialist food-stores, cafes and so on on Mill Road – which does have character – would gain more from passing trade to and from Tesco than they would lose to the new competition.”

Imagine my surprise to read in the Cambridge Evening News (CEN) a couple of days ago of “traders coming out in favour of the store”. CEN reports that:

“The fight against the Say No to Mill Road Tesco campaign will see a petition launched today by traders supporting the supermarket giant.

Joyce Charles, one of the petition organisers, who owns Rollers hair salon in the Broadway, Mill Road, criticised the anti-Tesco campaigners.

Mrs Charles, who has owned the shop for 23 years and has the backing of other traders, said a growing number had had enough of the campaigners.

Other shops with petitions include Cambridge Resale, Greg’s Cycles, Halls Locksmith and the RSPCA shop.

Mrs Charles said: ‘We need Tesco to bring a bit of life to the street. In just a few hours we have had 23 signatures in our shop. …

‘These protesters are killing business in the street and putting people off setting up shop here. I have started to see more empty shops appearing and the protest has just made things worse.

‘As a hairdresser, I talk to many people and have found that those who actually live and work around here want Tesco. Why shouldn’t we have a choice? Many of these protesters are just against Tesco.

‘They are not thinking of Mill Road. They have painted the empty store and it looks awful.

‘Businesses won’t come here now because they are afraid they could be targeted next.’ “

I’ll be rushing down there to sign the petition!

And the excitement doesn’t stop there! There’s yet another plan for a supermarket in Cambridge. I’d be very interested to find out which chain this is – we should probably have a Lidl, Aldi or Morrison’s before another Tesco, on competition grounds. Otherwise, though, I’m afraid to say it seems to me that the local politicians are trying to outdo each other in objecting to these schemes – it’s very easy to say “we don’t need another supermarket”. CEN quotes Belinda Brooks-Gordon as saying about the proposed supermarket:

“It would bring with it giant delivery lorries travelling through our streets.

It could also attract hundreds of shoppers from the north and west of Cambridge, who could converge on this area.

The extra traffic it could generate would be disastrous.

It is imperative that we act now to stop these plans getting the go-ahead.

I would urge everyone to get behind this campaign.”

I can see downsides to a supermarket off Madingley Road, but I can also see benefits. The concern, of course, is indeed traffic. I’m sceptical though that a new supermarket would generate “extra traffic” – the potential customers must be buying their food somewhere already! And surely traffic is minimised by having as many supermarkets as possible so that journeys to supermarkets are as short as possible. The “hundreds of shoppers from the north and west of Cambridge, who could converge on this area” must be buying their food somewhere at the moment, many non-drivers likely at the dreaded City Centre Sainsbury’s, so will have another choice, which may require less travel. Those who drive to the supermarket may have less of a journey than to the Newmarket Road Asda and Tesco.

Similarly, a new store in itself can’t generate more delivery traffic. Unless the residents of Cambridge eat more because of the new store, the same amount of food must be being transported.

I’m a little more concerned that the store is envisaged to be the “biggest supermarket in the city”. Perhaps the proposed store represents another step towards Cambridge turning into a massive shopping centre for the surrounding area. But if this creates traffic problems these should be managed by traffic solutions. Otherwise, if we are making a value judgement, we should be asking whether it is a valid one. Surely if people want to shop in a huge supermarket, they should be given that choice. Maybe it’s efficient. If people don’t have time to do more than one weekly shop by car (I’m thinking of the thousands of families I see with trolleys piled high at Asda or Tesco when I occasionally venture a trip to Newmarket Road of a weekend), should we really be making life more difficult for them? Especially if we simply nudge them into driving further to another supermarket on the already clogged streets of Cambridge and the surrounding area.

On the other hand, there are clearly systemic reasons why large edge-of-town stores are so dominant. But some of these are under the control of local councils. Because it is even more difficult to get planning permission for local stores than for out of town supermarkets, the market allows landlords to charge much higher rents in town centres and residential areas. Sure, scale economies – which are a fact of life – and buyer power – which should be constrained – give large supermarkets an advantage, but I suspect a major competitive disadvantage for local, specialist food stores is the high cost of commercial property. And councils could reduce these by being more willing to give planning permission. In other words, in trying to stop massive edge-of-town supermarkets, councils are addressing a problem they themselves are responsible for creating!

It seems to me that using the planning system to constrain shopping choices is the wrong way to address the problem – if, indeed, there is one – and that it would be far better to grant planning permission much more readily, bringing shop-keepers’ costs down and allowing people more choice in where to shop. If people don’t want to use large out-of-town supermarkets, they’ll simply lose money and close down.

Taxi trauma!

But that’s not it for the excitement in Cambridge just now!! In a sensational move, the police actually arrested a taxi-driver! CEN writes:

“The driver was parked at the end of a row of six cabs on Thursday on a six-space rank in [St Andrew’s] street, which has become a flashpoint for the battle.”

But the story actually seems to be that if the driver had simply obeyed a police officer the arrest would never have occurred. Though I suppose – since, amazingly enough, it’s not just me, and according to the CEN, there have been “calls from the public” about the rank – the police would have had to take some action eventually, since, as I observed, taxis have simply been returning to the rank as soon as the coast was clear.

I’ve nothing against taxi-drivers. I have a lot of sympathy, since it’s obvious what’s happening. The problem is that taxis are the coal-mine canaries of the recession. There’s an incredible (and often remarked upon) feedback loop. People are less willing to drop a tenner on a taxi-fare, more taxis end up waiting at the ranks, meaning drivers have to work longer for the same return, leading to even longer queues… And that’s before even factoring in those drivers who have lost another source of income because of the recession, so need more income from fares anyway.

But as I’ve already pointed out, the taxi-drivers at the St Andrew’s Street rank are simply taking the piss. It’s not clear from the picture in the CEN article, but there are a number of bus-stops behind the taxis waiting on double-yellows. Quiet apart from clogging the street up, buses have to manoeuvre awkwardly round the taxis at the back of the queue. I’ve even seen taxis blocking bus-stops!

So now a situation has developed:

“Pc Steve Hinks, who is carrying out the sweep on taxis after calls from the public, says he and his officers have had abuse hurled at them by angry cabbies.

But cabbies criticised the ‘overzealous’ officers, saying the row was ‘the beginning of the end of a good relationship’. [what, one where the police don’t do their job?]

Now furious cabbies are threatening to turn Friday and Saturday nights in the city centre into mayhem by refusing to take drunks away from trouble hotspots.

And some are even talking about strike action or a blockade of the city.”

To be honest, the drivers need to calm down a bit. Threatening to create mayhem when it exists already seems more than a little hollow. Besides, I suspect they make a lot of their money on Friday and Saturday nights since there’s no public transport to take people out of the City Centre. They probably get a fair few £25 fares to villages and small towns all over Cambridgeshire, and are no doubt earning all the time, because they don’t have to queue for fares. Otherwise, given they choose their own hours, drivers simply wouldn’t work the party-shift.

The solution, of course, as I pointed out before is for the St Andrew’s Street taxi rank to be closed. People should walk – sorry, I know this is a novel concept for many – 100 metres to the Drummer Street rank, which appears to be redundant at the moment. There simply isn’t space for 6 taxis in St Andrew’s Street, let alone the 12 who are often there.