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The end of our collective love affair with brands?

Yesterday was a day that produced the most extraordinary news. For the last 8 months or so, the No To Costa campaign in Totnes, supported by Transition Town Totnes, among others, has been campaigning to stop Costa Coffee from opening a branch in Totnes. Communities always lose battles like that don’t they? That’s certainly the experience in most places. But yesterday, Costa Coffee, a huge company with nearly 1,400 outlets, announced that “we had an open and constructive discussion and as a result … we have carefully considered the points made and decided not to open on Totnes high street”. Its MD Chris Rogers, much to his credit, said “Costa has recognised the strength of feeling in Totnes against national brands and taken into account the specific circumstances of Totnes”. Extraordinary. Here it is on yesterday’s ITV News.

 

Totnes, you see, already has 41 independent coffee businesses, many of whom, it was felt, would have been threatened by a Costa opening. The No To Costa campaign was superbly run, focusing on the unique independent fabric of the local economy, and how detrimentally hit it would be by a big, high-profile chain opening on the high street, especially one that would so directly undermine a key part of the local economy and the town’s local distinctiveness.

The campaign began with the Totnes Independent Coffee Festival, a celebration of the local coffee culture, which featured a barista competition as well as other events that celebrated the diverse nature of the town’s coffee outlets. It also found that many other communities were facing similar battles, and in Bristol, for example, two branches had even opened without planning approval and not been challenged. It also produced the iconic ‘Clonestopping’ poster which can be seen in shop windows throughout the town.

Costa submitted their planning application, which included page after page of case studies of applications that they had overturned on appeal, described by one of the Councillors as “threatening”. In the end, in spite of the Town Council, Mayor and local MP coming out strongly against it, and a petition of over 5,700 people saying that they would not support a chain coffee shop in the town and that they felt it would be detrimental to the local economy, Costa were granted planning permission.

That felt like that was probably that. It felt like Costa’s arrival was now inevitable. The campaign continued on Twitter, with the fact that Costa had refused to engage in any way with the No To Costa campaign being pointed out to them by various people, including Mary Portas and Monty Don. When invited by Dr. Sarah Wollaston (MP), Costa agreed to come to Totnes, and two weeks ago met with local traders, Dr. Wollaston, the Mayor of Totnes, members of the No To Costa campaign and others, they listened to their concerns and discovered the potential damage the campaign could cause to Costa’s reputation they went away saying that they would “reflect” on what they had heard.

Yesterday morning, a joint statement was released by Dr Sarah Wollaston MP, the Mayor of Totnes and Chris Rogers, MD of Costa, stating:

“To the people of Totnes,

We are sending this joint letter from Costa and the offices of the MP and Mayor for Totnes as we felt it was important to outline, together, the outcome of discussions held between us in early October.

Along with other representatives from Totnes, we had an open and constructive discussion. As a result of that discussion Costa has carefully considered the points made, listened and decided that it will not be opening on Totnes High Street.

In making this decision Costa has recognised the strength of feeling in Totnes against national brands and taken into account the specific circumstances of Totnes. Totnes is a town with a long and proud history of independent retailers, it has one of the lowest percentages of branded stores of any town of its size in the UK, very few empty shop fronts, as well as a very high proportion of places selling coffee.

Costa is a successful British business employing over 10,000 people, the majority of whom are under 25 years old. In Devon, Costa has some 19 stores, employs nearly 200 people and sources a large quantity of milk as well as other products from local farms and producers across the County. At its heart, Costa cares about what customers want and seeks to be a force for good in the communities in which it operates, contributing to growth, creating jobs and supporting local projects and activities.

As your MP and Mayor, and speaking on behalf of the people of Totnes, we would like to thank Costa for being prepared to listen to our concerns and showing that they care. We would also like to recognise the valuable contribution that Costa continues to make to communities across Devon”.

It is an extraordinary decision, and Costa deserve great respect for coming (finally), listening, and deciding not to force themselves on a community which clearly didn’t want them. TTT’s Frances Northrop told the Guardian that the decision “said something about a company actually coming to visit a place and understanding it, rather than sticking a pin in a map”. It is, I think, the first example of them getting planning permission for a branch and then deciding to not open it.

Representatives of Costa meet with Dr. Wollaston MP and others 2 weeks ago when Costa visited Totnes.

Some argue that it boils down to choice, and that anyone who wants to go to a Costa in Totnes should have the right to do so, that market forces will work it out in the end. This argument has something going for it, in that of course businesses compete with each other, that’s how economies work.

But the real question is whether it is still in the realms of fair competition to introduce into an economy of independent businesses, whose kids go to local schools, who source local supplies and so on, a huge national chain business with economies of scale and marketing budgets that are not available to local businesses and who would have been way larger than them? Does it promote choice when shopping in an independent means that 80p from every £1 you spent stays and cycles in the local community, whereas shopping in a chain, 80% of it leaves at the end of the day when they cash up?

Would opening a Costa introduce more choice, or ultimately lead to less choice? Would it lead to job creation, or to job losses? Would Costa support local bakers, farmers and services that support wider local jobs? The idea that all businesses are the same, and that they operate in a level playing field, is a nonsense. That was the case the campaign argued, and argued very well. It is also a question of precedent. Once one large name food retail business elbows its way onto the high street, it only a question of time before Tesco and others start moving in.

A report by the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England (which produced the map of the local food webs around Totnes) looked at the local food economy of Totnes and concluded that:

“Although the Totnes food web is thriving and offers an important range of triple bottom line – social, economic and environmental – benefits, it remains vulnerable to major supermarket development. Our recommendations below suggest how policy at local authority could better recognise the value of the Totnes local food web and provide stronger support to enable it to develop and thrive”.

It also suggested a number of ways the local authority could help:

  • create specific retail policy to maintain diversity and ensure the scale of new food retail in Totnes or other centres in the district is appropriate for the location;
  • ensure local plan policy includes assessment of the need for new retail development and of its impact on diversity of businesses in the town and in the local food web;
  • review and revise procurement policy to support local, sustainable produce; and
  • promote the area as a local food destination including working with business to develop marketing tools such as a ‘local to Totnes’ label.

In towns like Totnes, where a relatively independent high street has held its own when most other high streets have fallen to the ‘Clone Town Britain’ syndrome, something precious remains, which once it is disposed of is impossible to recreate.

Local residents march to the offices of South Hams District Council to oppose Costa’s planning application.

Another issue it brings up is that of distant landlords. Turns out the landlord of the building had decided that he was only interested in having a chain business in the space, and turned down offers from independents and charities for the space. This is a common problem in a high street where many of the buildings are owned by distant investment companies.

I think that whatever happens next to that space, it is good to pause at this moment and reflect on what an extraordinary moment this is. Costa Coffee, who have a very ambitious (for which read ‘aggressive’) national expansion plan to open lots of new outlets, and have opened branches even in the absence of planning, have encountered sustained opposition, and have, eventually, had the good grace to step back. They deserve a huge amount of respect and kudos for having done so.

It is a great precedent for other communities threatened with something similar. Mary Portas tweeted “Applaud @CostaCoffee for listening to Totnes before opening”, and it certainly shows that such applications are not a foregone conclusion. It is a great precedent in terms of a community running a campaign that focused on what it is that it loves about its local economy, what it feels is precious, what it would like to become. No to Costa focused on Costa in the wider context of a vision of a more diverse and resilient local economy, in the context of the REconomy Project, the Atmos Project, the Economic Blueprint which will be published in the next few weeks. It celebrated local businesses and local traders, and the announcement, in some cases, even literally led to dancing in the streets.

The story became a media whirlwind yesterday, featuring in The Daily Express, the Telegraph, The Guardian, the BBC, The Huffington Post, The Independent, Metro, The Sun, The Times, The Mirror, and many more. For several hours it was the most read story on the BBC’s news page. For now, it feels extraordinary. I never thought we’d actually do it. It just doesn’t happen. The big players always get their way in the end don’t they? Not this time. Might it be that this has laid a marker, drawn a line in the sand to say that we are fed up with the endless expansion of brands into every corner of our lives, every shop on our high streets?

Costa had claimed that they would “add to the vibrancy of the town and support the local community … by adding vibrancy [and] complementing what Totnes currently offers”. The message is now out that we are perfectly capable of creating vibrancy ourselves thank you very much, and that in order to do so we need to hold back the swamping of local economies with huge brands, and regain some of the power ourselves. As communities, vibrancy is what we do, given half a chance.

 

I’d like to offer a huge thanks and deep respect to the determined, skilful and wonderful folks who co-ordinated the campaign, and wish them a well earned restful and celebratory weekend, and also to Pruw Boswell, Mayor of Totnes, and Dr. Wollaston MP and to everyone who came together and made this happen.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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