CPRE call to arms in fight to keep Norfolk’s local food
Our rural communities continue to be a grim retail battleground with local food shops and small suppliers struggling against the advance of the supermarket giants. Now a report has given campaigners new weapons to fight back. Stephen Pullinger reports.
Critics would describe their impact as like an out-of-control juggernaut ploughing a destructive path through our rural towns and villages.
And despite valiant local campaigns, no one has really been able to put the brakes on the inexorable advance of the supermarket giants in time to stop them sealing the fate of many high street shops and the small producers who supply them.
Perhaps one reason for the hitherto sorry failure of efforts to safeguard our rural communities has been the lack of hard facts to counter the argument of the corporate giants that they are creating much needed jobs and delivering what customers want.
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But now a report published today by the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) measures the continuing economic and social importance of local food suppliers and recommends a raft of measures to protect them.
It is described as an 'urgent call for action' by television presenter and horticultural expert Monty Don, who said: 'In too many places, local food networks are struggling to survive. The odds are stacked against them.
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'They must compete against the dominance of the big supermarkets, the erosion of town centres with the corresponding loss of diversity of outlets and small scale producers and the disappearance of food from living streets.'
The study, From field to fork: the value of England's local food webs, surveyed 19 towns and cities around the country -including Norwich and Ely - and found that, across the board, their local food outlets serve 415,000 customers a week. It says that local food sold through independent shops and markets in these centres supports a total turnover of �132m a year and helps to sustain more than 2,600 jobs.
And it calculates that there are 2,000 supply chain businesses providing locally sourced produce to these locations, supporting a total turnover of �718m a year and the employment of a further 34,000 people.
Nationally, it estimates that local food outlets serve 16.3 million customers a week and that local food sales through independent outlets are worth �2.7bn a year to the economy.
The report, the culmination of a five-year Big Lottery-funded research project, finds that despite the dominance of chains, local independent stores and markets matter to shoppers; one fifth of shoppers use independent stores for all or part of their main shopping and they account for 60pc of 'top-up' shopping visits.
The survey further shows how local food outlets support diversity, distinctiveness and innovation in the food and farming sectors, broaden choice for shoppers, promote seasonality, reduce food miles and shape the character of towns and countryside.
From our region, the East of England Co-operative is highlighted as a positive case study for locally sourcing food.
In the first year of launching a new Sourced Locally brand, the initiative was responsible for �7.1m of a �7.9m increase in food sales sourced from local suppliers.
And to date, more than �15m has been spent with 114 local suppliers, creating 100 new jobs and supporting many existing ones at suppliers.
However, the report concludes that despite their demonstrable importance, local food outlets are under threat from large supermarkets which have increasingly displaced food from marketplaces and town centres and weakened or closed local shops.
The continuing national growth of supermarkets - from fewer than 300 superstores in 1980 to 1,500 by 2007 - had weakened town centres and seen a collapse in traditional specialist food stores from 120,000 in the 1950s to 18,000 in the late 2000s, it observes.
Following the publication of its report the CPRE is to make a new toolkit available for local campaigners to explore the benefits and challenges their local food economy faces, including the impact of new superstores.
The charity is also pressing for much more to be done to support local food networks.
It is calling on the government to re-examine competition policy to support retail diversity; develop new national planning policy guidance to boost local food networks, for example in facilitating new distribution hubs; improve the ability of the planning system to ensure the vitality of town centres; and provide strong leadership through its departments on sustainable food procurement.
It wants local authorities to update their local plans, including drafting policies to support local food distribution, and to develop food strategies and action plans in partnership with other public bodies.
The CPRE says businesses should work together to promote awareness, access, affordability and availability of local food.
Meanwhile, supermarket chains should set themselves demanding targets for stocking and selling local food in ways which reinforce consumer awareness and trust.
The report has won regional backing at all levels, from Roys, one of Norfolk's biggest names in independent retailing, down to small village suppliers.
Paul Roy, buying and marketing director of Roys of Wroxham, said: 'There is merit in the pragmatic initiatives they suggest and I am glad it supports the work we have been doing over many years selling local food and promoting awareness and trust of the local food producers that we stock in our supermarkets.'
He said about 1000 of their products came from suppliers in the neighbourhood, including all their beef, chicken and lamb and 90pc of their potatoes - potatoes coming five miles away from Buxton.
He said Roys had forged strong, trusting relationships with more than 50 local suppliers and the success of that food web was facilitating further investment by producers in their business.
This was driving costs down and bringing them on to a more level playing field with the mass produced produce that did not have the characteristics of local food.
He said: 'There is nothing wrong with the colour of European strawberries, in fact they generally look very good indeed, but if you had to travel 1000 miles and were supposed to be a soft fruit you'd be jam too. 'That is why the varieties are bred to have high yields, rich colour and be vibration tolerant, in my opinion sacrificing flavour.
'Compare those to the English strawberries we took to the Norfolk show from Place's farm three miles away in Tunstead. I can only recall compliments. 'That's what strawberries should taste like,' I was told, 'I thought so too',' I said.
CPRE's suggestions to create a more level playing field have also been welcomed by the small producers behind Truly Local, a shop in Stalham High Street opened as a not-for-profit enterprise to sell produce sourced within a 35-mile radius.
The shop, opened last year with the help of grants, was launched as an extension to Stalham farmers market and provides an outlet for about 100 local suppliers.
One of its founders, Michael Sims, who has an eight-acre smallholding in East Ruston with sheep, pigs, vegetables and orchards, said the shop had been the salvation for many producers.
'We were trying to make a living doing small markets before. Small producers have a hard job getting into the big stores,' he said.
Confidence was growing that the shop could be self-sustaining, but he insisted local food needed a helping hand - 'a handicap to level the playing field to give the small guys a chance to compete'.
Mr Sims said Stalham was a prime example of the devastating impact a supermarket could have on a rural community.
He said: 'Within six months of Tesco opening we had lost a baker's, greengrocer's, off-licence, Co-op and little petrol station - and the market had gone because they built on it. I don't think the jobs created by Tesco made up for all the lost ones because they are so efficient at swallowing up the people scraping a living in small businesses.'
He said their customers recognised the fact they could buy the basics as cheaply, or cheaper than in the major supermarkets - and they did not have to hunt around the aisles looking for one or two items.
They could also deliver distinctive and individual items rather than mass-produced, homogeneous fare.
Ian Russell, director of the Wroxham Barns crafts and retail complex, was also keen to emphasise the importance of local produce to customers.
He said: 'We have established a roster of very good and very reliable local producers, who supply food of the highest quality to the restaurant, straight from field to fork, for example Broadland Hams, Norton's Dairies, Letheringsett Mill, Place Strawberries, Mrs Temple's Cheese and Swannington Farm to Fork.
'Our customers like to know the origin of their food. It adds to their experience and they recognise and accept the value of the food's provenance.'
Christopher Nix, assistant principal resources at Easton College, near Norwich, said that while large agricultural businesses were vital to the region, small producers were also essential to create 'a successful, buoyant economy'.
The college had played an active role in the administration of a number of grant support schemes for small rural businesses and spent as much as possible - up to �250,000 a year - on local produce itself.
He said: 'The college is also supportive of a proposal to create a food hub in the centre of Norfolk to improve the efficiency of distribution for a number of food-related businesses although this is currently subject to planning and a number of challenges.' To read the full report, visit cpre.org.uk