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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A nation that doesn’t officially exist: on Somaliland’s campaign to build a national library in Hargeisa

The Somaliland National Library, Hargeisa. Image: Ahmed Elmi.

For seven years now, there’s been a fundraising campaign underway to build a new national library in a nation that doesn’t officially exist. 

Since 2010, the Somali diaspora have been sending money, to pay for construction of the new building in the capital, Hargeisa. In a video promoting the project, the British journalist Rageeh Omar, who was born in Mogadishu to a Hargeisa family, said it would be... 

“...one of the most important institutions and reference points for all Somalilanders. I hope it sets a benchmark in terms of when a country decides to do something for itself, for the greater good, for learning and for progress – that anything can be achieved.”

Now the first storey of the Somaliland National Library is largely complete. The next step is to fill it with books. The diaspora has been sending those, too.

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Some background is necessary here to explain the “country that doesn’t exist” part. During the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s, at the height of European imperialism, several different empires established protectorates in the Somali territories on the Horn of Africa. In 1883, the French took the port of Djibouti; the following year, the British grabbed the north coast, which looks out onto the Gulf of Aden. Five years after that, the Italians took the east coast, which faces the Indian Ocean.

And, excepting some uproar during World War II, so things remained for the next 70 years or so.

The Somali territories in 1890. Image: Ingoman/Wikimedia Commons.

When the winds of change arrived in 1960, the British and Italian portions agreed to unite as the Somali Republic: a hair-pin shaped territory, hugging the coast and surrounding Ethiopia on two sides. But British Somaliland gained its independence first: for just five days, at the end of June 1960, it was effectively an independent country. This will become important later.

(In case you are wondering what happened to the French bit, it voted to remain with France in a distinctly dodgy referendum. It later became independent as Djibouti in 1977.)

The new country, informally known as Somalia, had a difficult history: nine years of democracy ended in a coup, and were followed by the 22 year military dictatorship under the presidency of General Siad Barre. In 1991, under pressure from rebel groups including the Hargeisa-based Somali National Movement (SNM), Barre fled, and his government finally collapsed. So, in effect, did the country.

For one thing, it split in two, along the old colonial boundaries: the local authorities in the British portion, backed by the SNM, made a unilateral declaration of independence. In the formerly Italian south, though, things collapsed in a rather more literal sense: the territory centred on Mogadishu was devastated by the Somali civil war, which has killed around 500,000, displaced more than twice that, and is still officially going on.

Somalia (blue) and Somaliland (yellow) in 2016. Image: Nicolay Sidorov/Wikimedia Commons.

The north, meanwhile, got off relatively lightly: today it’s the democratic and moderately prosperous Republic of Somaliland. It claims to be the successor to the independent state of Somaliland, which existed for those five days in June 1960.

This hasn’t persuaded anybody, though, and today it’s the only de facto sovereign state that has never been recognised by a single UN member. Reading about it, one gets the distinct sense that this is because it’s basically doing okay, so its lack of diplomatic recognition has never risen up anyone’s priority list.

Neither has its library.

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Rageeh Omar described the site of the new library in his fundraising video. It occupies 6,000m2 in the middle of Hargeisa, two minutes from the city’s main hospital, 10 from the presidential palace. In one sequence he stands on the half-completed building’s roof and points out the neighbours: the city’s main high street, with the country’s largest shopping mall; the Ministry of Telecoms that lies right next door.

This spiel, in a video produced by the project’s promoters, suggests something about the new library: that part of its job is to be another in this list of landmarks, more evidence that Hargeisa, a city of 1.5m, should be recognised as the proper capital of a real country.

But it isn’t just that: the description of the library’s function, in the government’s Strategic Plan 2013-2023, makes clear it’s also meant to be a real educational facility. NGOS, the report notes, have focused their resources on primary schools first, secondary schools second and other educational facilities not at all. (This makes sense, given that they want most bang for their buck.)

And so, the new building will provide “the normal functions of public library, but also... additional services that are intentionally aimed at solving the unique education problems of a post conflict society”. It’ll provide books for a network of library trucks, providing “book services” to the regions outside Hargeisa, and a “book dispersal and exchange system”, to provide books for schools and other educational facilities. There’ll even be a “Camel Library Caravan that will specifically aim at accessing the nomadic pastoralists in remote areas”.

All this, it’s hoped, will raise literacy levels, in English as well as the local languages of Arabic and Somali, and so boost the economy too.

As described. Image courtesy of Nimko Ali.

Ahmed Elmi, the London-based Somali who’s founder and director of the library campaign, says that the Somaliland government has invested $192,000 in the library. A further $97,000 came from individual and business donors in both Hargeisa and in the disaspora. “We had higher ambitions,” Elmi tells me, “but we had to humble our approach, since the last three years the country has been suffering from a large drought.”

Now the scheme is moving to its second phase: books, computers and printers, plus landscaping the gardens. This will cost another $175,000. “We are also open to donations of books, furniture and technology,” Emli says. “Or even someone with technical expertise who can help up set-up the librarian system instead of a contemporary donation of a cash sum.” The Czech government, in fact, has helped with the latter: it’s not offered financial support, but has offered to spend four weeks training two librarians.  

Inside the library.

On internet forums frequented by the Somali diaspora, a number of people have left comments about the best way to do this. One said he’d “donated all my old science and maths schoolbooks last year”. And then there’s this:

“At least 16 thousand landers get back to home every year, if everyone bring one book our children will have plenty of books to read. But we should make sure to not bring useless books such celebrity biography books or romantic novels. the kids should have plenty of science,maths and vocational books.”

Which is good advice for all of us, really.


Perhaps the pithiest description of the project comes from its Facebook page: “Africa always suffers food shortage, diseases, civil wars, corruption etc. – but the Somaliland people need a modern library to build a better place for the generations to come.”

The building doesn’t look like much: a squat concrete block, one storey-high. But there’s something about the idea of a country coming together like this to build something that’s rather moving. Books are better than sovereignty anyway.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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