Why do modern London housing developments always come with supermarkets?

Oh, good. Image: Rachel Holdsworth.

Douglas Adams once theorised that the end of civilisation would be brought about by the Shoe Event Horizon: the point at which every shop was a shoe shop, and it wasn’t possible to buy anything else. Were he alive today, it’s possible he’d modify his theory and use mini supermarkets instead.

There’s a noticeable pattern in which new housing developments – not necessarily very tall or large ones – fill high street retail units with chain stores. Sometimes these are coffee shops; but often they are supermarkets. The pattern is familiar in many areas, but let’s take a detailed look at one: the London borough of Lewisham.

To start: a smallish development next to Hither Green station. The Biscuit Works site is a former factory/warehouse, converted to mews houses and flats with two retail units facing onto the street.

Vinit Patel, whose family owned two businesses on the same street and moved their pharmacy into one of the new spaces, says the original intention was to divide up the larger unit to be more suitable for local small businesses. Several residents expressed interest – but Patel says they met with little response.

In April 2014, developer MacDonald Egan sold the retail space to London & Central Securities. In May 2014, that company applied to the council to change planning permission from A3 (cafe/restaurant) to A1 (retail), saying the units had been “unsuccessfully marketed since April 2013”. Suspicion grew among local business owners that the intention was to lease the space to a supermarket chain – a suspicion borne out by a recent planning permission documents submitted by Sainsbury’s. Both developers have been approached for comment but have not responded.

Another supermarket. Image: Rachel Holdsworth.

Residents and local business owners aren’t happy. Over the last decade there’s been a concerted effort to transform what was a fairly scruffy area into a thriving shopping zone with the community at its heart. The street is now stacked with chichi independent shops, reflecting the area’s growing gentrification. Locals worry about the impact a new supermarket will have on those people who took a chance starting their own businesses, in terms of where people shop and when its lorries make deliveries. (The council recently rejected a request by Sainsbury’s to extend delivery hours.)

One big supermarket, argues Patel, will have a “disproportionate impact on the area” that three smaller units wouldn’t have.

Of course, the Sainsbury’s will get used. It’s in a high foot traffic area, and even with a rather good Nisa opposite and five other chain supermarkets in less than a 15 minute walk, Sainsbury’s is onto a winner. Is everybody else, though?

The Biscuit Works story isn’t an isolated story, but one that’s illustrative of a wider phenomenon.

In Lewisham Gateway, a cluster of residential towers rising around the station, a Sainsbury’s Local and an Asda have just opened opposite each other in the ground floor of two new developments. They’re about 50 metres away from an existing Tesco Express, and less than 10 minute walks from big Tesco and Sainsbury’s stores. (Asda was so keen to open this store that, even though the council designated the space non-retail, the supermarket chain appealed to the planning inspector.)

There’s also a redevelopment happening at the Leegate Centre, where an existing – fairly down-at-heel – shopping centre is being transformed into 230 homes focused around a large Asda store. This is odd, given it’s directly opposite a large Sainsbury’s. Councillor Simon Hooks explains the developer, St Modwen, insisted it needs an anchor store to make the site viable; some sections of the community have expressed concerns about which community stores will survive.

The two-mile stretch of road between Catford and Lewisham is topped and tailed by large Tesco stores. In between, until recently, two Express stores beneath low-rise housing. But one of those Tescos recently closed, with the retailer confirming it was for lack of custom, showing the limits of such a blanket strategy.


Attack of the clones

It doesn’t have to be this way. Lewisham Council’s pioneering modular development for social housing also has a high street frontage. The council deliberately filled the space with local, independent businesses, including a cafe and a co-working space. Anna Burton of social enterprise Meanwhile Space, which operates three of the units, says: “Lewisham is a borough with one of the highest levels of businesses starting up. At the initial stages we had over 120 applicants wanting space in the building.”

Galliard is also doing something different in Deptford. Its luxury Distillery Tower skyscraper has given over commercial space to local arts festival Deptford X. Festival director Patrick Henry says Galliard has given them studio space, rent three, for three years. “They’re also making a contribution to our running costs, so they’ve made a serious investment in us as a long-established local cultural organisation and charity.” (The remaining units in the tower are currently unoccupied.)

Craig Fisher, managing director of agents CF Commercial, says that “historically, commercial landlords would have picked mainstream brands on account of their rock solid covenants and low risk profiles. But increasingly many are realising the long-term value add a smaller or independent operator can bring, by driving footfall and helping create a real distinct 'sense of place'”. So why are so many mini supermarkets appearing on our high streets?

Primarily, supermarkets are keen to take advantage of the glut of new space. While it may look like the so-called “Starbucks strategy”, where chain coffee shops would blanket an area in order to drive competitors out, Tesco says these units “tend to provide the scale our customers want. They also retain an active frontage onto the high street, helping to support retail in local communities.”

Similarly, Sainsbury’s maintains that “due to London’s dense residential population, these small stores can trade well alongside each other and other traders and businesses, by drawing trade from different areas. Experience has shown us that Sainsbury’s smaller shops bring benefits to other businesses such as increased footfall, investment and linked shopping trips.”

Another supermarket. Image: Rachel Holdsworth.

Developers are unwittingly helping supermarkets with their growth plans. Councillor Damien Egan, who has cabinet responsibility for housing in Lewisham, says that developers often don’t want to fit out the units themselves.

He cites the decade-plus old Meridian South development, where several food businesses were keen to move in – but the upfront costs of installing fixtures and ventilation were too much. The only commercial outlets in the development now are a gym and… a Tesco Express.

For the last year, Lewisham Council has been telling developers to fit out their commercial units. It’s a strategy that still needs assessment to see if it’s working, but Egan says it’s crucial for the area to get a commercial balance. “Local businesses need to compete on a level playing field,” he says. “Diversity of retail makes an area a destination.”

This is a bigger issue than homogenisation of our high streets, though that is also a major problem (one I’ve banged on about before). Lewisham has more small businesses than any other area of London, yet between 2002 and 2012 the borough lost 16 per cent of its commercial space.

For SMEs to thrive they need office, pop-up and small retail space. Developers have a responsibility to ensure their commercial units serve the diversity of the communities they’re building for.

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“This is a civic pride for the digital age”: why we should why we should willingly let City Hall have our data

He was the future once: David Cameron discusses smart cities with Angela Merkel and a German technology executive. Image: Getty.

Victorian England. From the shadows of wealth grew poverty. Slums slumped against symbols of civic pride, cowering next to towering town halls funded through rich merchant princes, whose elitist rule was insufficient to deal with too many people in too few houses with too little infrastructure.

Enter municipality. With darkness came electric light; with disease came tunnels to disperse their cause; with time came reform, regulation and the rise of town planning.

It’s over a century since those places which first industrialised became those first urbanised; yet even the wealthiest cities in the world continue to struggle with the complexities of urbanisation. In London, ten thousand die each year from pollution; in New York, six times this amount reside in homeless shelters.On the rush-hour roads of Sydney, cars stand still, and in the ‘burbs or banlieues of Paris slums still stand.

An umbrella bought during a downpour costs more than one bough under blue sky – and the truth is that, for too, long city halls have failed to forecast and so incurred greater costs. It’s a reactive culture summed up by words first head in Jimmy Carter’s budget office: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Disease before sewer, gridlock before investment, collapse before rebuild – visible fix over unseen prevention

But with the world’s urban population growing by 65m every year, this has to change: there is not enough resource to manage cities reactively. Enter technology and the move to smart cities.

From Barcelona to New YorkOxford to Amsterdam, Singapore to Seoul: billions of low-cost devices are being installed into everyday objects to send and receive data: street lights recording pollution, and bridges reporting performance; traffic lights that count, and whose analysis will be counted upon, to ease traffic congestion; health wristbands understanding our heart’s needs, shop ceilings noting our heart’s desires. A web of information woven into the very fabric of cities which, when added to data from sources like mobile phones, is providing a living-breathing picture of how we and our cities operate.

This data is no longer retrospective or historic but live and dynamic. It is of such quantity, and can be analysed at such granular detail, that it can provide certainty where once there was only supposition. It is build-up before the gridlock, illness before epidemic; the crack of an ageing bridge, the first signs of smog. It is diagnostic to preventative. Umbrella under blue sky.

Those promoting the “internet of things”, estimated to be worth $11.1trn a year by 2025, will declare it a panacea – but it is not, at least not entirely. Sure, challenges regarding data quality, privacy, standardisation, and security will be overcome; 4G will become 5G will become 6G. Devices will communicate intelligently with each other – autonomous vehicle to autonomous vehicle, autonomous vehicle to bridge, drone to home. Data will become as fundamental to cities as infrastructure, and will be referred to as such.

Yet city halls in democracies, whilst infinitely better informed, will continue to make their decisions which are restricted by commercialism, framed by political ideology, and driven by short-term electoral or media pressures.


People first

From the mid-sixties to the start of this century a UK television programme called Tomorrow’s World showcased future living. For every correct prediction (mobile phones) came countless incorrect ones: the floating-bicycle, say, or paper underwear. My point is that only a small part of understanding the future of cities is about understanding technology. The majority is about understanding people and society, the people from whom the very word “city” is derived: civitas, the collective of citizens.

Gutenberg did not change the world by inventing the printing press in the 13th century – but he did enable the world to change. The technology was the printing press, the outputs were books filled with knowledge, the outcomes were the actions of the many who used that knowledge. Technology is a tool, a process towards an outcome. 

In much the same way, the Internet of Things will not change the world – but it will enable the world to change. Sensors are the technology, data the outputs, the analysis of this data and subsequent decisions, the outcome.

It is crucial to avoid the Tomorrow’s World approach. That is, racing to implement technology first without consideration of identified social, economic or environmental needs; introducing more complexity when most citizens seek simplicity. As the writer and urbanist Jane Jacobs once said:“First comes the image of what we want, then the machinery is adapted to turn out that image.”

Start with people. Form the image. Think of technology through the Greek origins of the word, techne and logos – a discourse about the way things are gained – and capitalise on collective intelligence to move towards that image.

Since cities first started to appear some millennia ago, they’ve provided incontrovertible evidence that the wisdom of crowds is far greater than the individual; that collective intelligence gained from that trinity of city institutions – citizen, government, industry – surpasses what can be achieved by any one in isolation. Where would Apple, Uber, or Google be without the government-backed inventions like the world-wide-web, touchscreen technology, WiFi or global positioning systems?

A new civic pride

Of course, an app on a smart phone that can ask a thousand questions is meaningless if nobody feels motivated to answer. Increasing urbanisation brings increasing interdependency: lives intrinsically linked, services shared. The challenge for city halls is to turn the increase in what people have in common, into an increase in common purpose, through understanding the three benefits that motivate and lead to action.

Extrinsic benefits, of status and reward, caused merchant princes to fund city halls in Victorian England: such benefits today see the ambitious putting in extra hours. Intrinsic benefits, like competitiveness or fun, that once caused business tycoons to compete to build the tallest skyscrapers, now explain why “hackathons” and “city challenges” are such a success. Then there are the pro-social benefits of altruism or benevolence, that cause millions to volunteer their time to give back and feel part of something bigger than themselves.

These motivations are of greater significance, because there are no longer people with clipboards standing on street corners asking permission to collate our views on services: it is happening automatically through the Internet of Things. Our choices online, movements offline; the travel we take, the pollution we make; our actions and interactions. We are data.

City halls can take a click-box-small-print approach to this, like so many apps. But there is opportunity to do the opposite. They can promote the fact that citizens can knowingly provide their data towards making lives better; visualise and enable citizens to see and understand their input, alongside data provided by others.

They can incentivise interaction with data, so that entrepreneurs can work back from outcomes, solve challenges, and re-localise where appropriate (we should not need a multinational to get a taxi). They can be proudly open, enabling citizens, industry and government to receive pro-social benefit by contributing to something bigger than themselves: their life and the lives of others.

This is a civic pride for the digital age. Not just localism or patriotism based on geography but the strength of connection between people and their ability to direct and determine change through data. Not just pride in the buildings and infrastructure that form our physical world, but in the quality of data that will shape our future world and move us from a diagnostic to preventative society – umbrellas under blue sky.

We should take pride in technology, yes; but that should come second to the pride in those who, enabled by that technology, drive progress. Who, through the wisdom of crowds, form an image of the future and strengthen democracy by motivating society to move towards it. Who embrace openness and help overcome the challenges of urbanisation.

Kevin Keith is a writer, researcher, urbanist, and director of the southern hemisphere’s largest open data competition, GovHack. He tweets as@KevKeith.

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