Tesco’s David North on how localism is creating opportunity for business
Localism is a new word for something which only a few decades ago was simply a fact of life. For it would have seemed strange to past generations if decisions which affected local communities were not largely taken locally.
Those were the days, of course, when people tended to live and work within the neighbourhoods in which they had been born and brought up. Businesses remained overwhelmingly locally-owned and locally run. Local Government was a powerful force in the land.
The world is very different today. As individuals, we move far away from home to study and work. The headquarters of local businesses are far more likely to be hundreds, sometimes thousands, of miles away. At the same time, successive Governments have stripped councils of authority and accountability.
It is these shifts in influence which localism is seeking to reverse. The aim is to put as much control as possible in the hands of local people so they can shape their own communities. As an ambition, it is very hard to argue against. So why is it that in some quarters it is seen as a posing a new challenge to business?
I think this owes a great deal to the narrative which seeks to paint business as uncaring and riding roughshod over the concerns of local communities. Follow this line, and it is easy to believe that, for example, giving local people more power over planning decisions could be a threat to business. After all, local campaigns against developments, big and small, have become better organised and more effective in recent years.
But if, instead, localism gives business a reason to deepen its involvement in communities, it should be welcomed. If it encourages more open and earlier engagement with local people – preferably as part of a planning process that is more transparent and less prone to delay – it will turn out to have many advantages.
Taking this approach, welcoming the devolving of power down the chain, also requires us to have confidence in what we offer. Take, for example, supermarkets like Tesco. In recent decades, we have transformed the choice and quality of food available for families in the UK while holding down prices in real terms. We have no reason at all to be defensive about this.
Customers shop at Tesco because we offer outstanding value in terms of both quality and price. If we didn’t, people would shop elsewhere. At the same time, our staff see us as a good place to work, tailoring jobs to individual needs with the training and support so people can build careers.
Families vote with the feet and their shopping trolleys. So there should be little to fear from local people being given more say over planning decisions. Indeed, the new opportunities they have to decide the facilities and services they need to enhance their community – whether that is to encourage a planning application for a doctors’ surgery, gym or supermarket – should be welcomed. This is a lesson we learnt from Sheringham last year, together with the danger of communities confusing the loudest voices with those of the majority.
The north Norfolk resort was something of a rarity in not having a supermarket, forcing people to travel to neighbouring towns to shop. There is no doubt that a vocal local campaign against supermarkets helped to persuade the council not to support our application to build a store in the town. But when this 14-year opposition was tested in a parish referendum, demanded confidently by the anti-supermarket lobby, the result was very different.
The poll was remarkable for two reasons. First nearly one in two of those eligible to vote took part – twice the turn-out for the vacant parish council seat in the town only a few weeks before. Second, over 80% of those who voted wanted a supermarket in Sheringham, with a majority backing the Tesco proposal. Faced with this clear indication of local opinion, the district council gave our plans the go-ahead.
This was a vindication of our decision to consult widely with local people and to improve our plans to meet their concerns. Our proposal was for a store in the town centre rather than on the outskirts of Sheringham. We wanted to bring people into the town, not away from it. Our development will also include affordable housing and a new fire station and community centre – again meeting local concerns.
Ensuring the silent majority is heard is not about creating support where it is absent. That won’t work. It’s about helping give local people the tools to bring support together and the confidence that their views can make a difference. It involves building trust through clear and positive communications so people understand what is at stake, whether it is local jobs, facilities or the environment. .
But our community engagement goes well beyond consulting genuinely on the development of new stores. It is also now, as with many businesses, a key part of the way we operate. There has been a widespread realisation that, as the old personal and corporate community connections have broken down, we have to work much harder to put down roots.
Tesco may be a successful international business but we also pride ourselves on being good neighbours in every community we serve. You can see this in everything from the emphasis we put on local produce to our commitment to double the number of community champions within our UK stores.
Community champions are named and dedicated members of staff whose role is to offer our support and help to local charities and organisations. One of the examples of our successful partnerships is to host community fairs in the ground of our stores, which enable local and national charities in each area to showcase what they do and, importantly, to sign up volunteers for local charities. With over 11,000 new volunteers recruited last year, we are committed to holding 100 community fairs this year.
We are, obviously, proud at Tesco of what we are doing but we know as well that we are not alone in our active engagement in the communities we serve. Businesses, of all types, increasingly recognise that deep and genuine community involvement is both valuable and important. If the move towards localism deepens these links, it is good for everyone. Localism should be embraced, not feared.