THE BLOG

Supermarket Tax Would Boost Local Business

29/07/2014 16:29 BST | Updated 28/09/2014 10:59 BST

Last week, twenty councils, among them Green-led Brighton and Hove, asked the government for powers to put a levy on big supermarkets in their area. The money is to be used to support local communities damaged by the business practices of these giants.

Retail outlets with a rateable value of more than £500,000 would have to pay an extra business levy of up to 8.5%, which could raise up to £2million a year for hard-pressed local councils. Communities in Scotland and Northern Ireland already have this in operation.

It's the government's own Sustainable Communities Act that allows the potential for this positive measure. It's surely not what this big business-loving government intended, but it could be a real breakthrough in the much broader battle to force multinationals to make a fair contribution to maintaining the society that generates their profits.

Derby, which is leading the push, points out that up to 95% of money spent in supermarkets leaves their host communities, while, with smaller independent retailers, 50% typically stays locally.

Instead of being at the centre of strong local economies, providing business opportunities for others and associated jobs, the multinationals are centralised giants, with decisions made in head offices far from most workers and their communities.

But the damage goes far beyond the centralisation - the fact that unlike a local shop they're not supporting other local stationery shops, accountants, builders and suppliers.

These giant companies, with their massive profits, are paying their staff less than a living wage: Tesco and Sainsbury's have been the subject of lively campaigns to try to force them to reach this level, while Asda has recently announced plans to slash managers' pay, something that will surely have an economic impact where their stores are a big part of a town's economy.

That means their staff either live in poverty or rely on government benefits, particularly housing benefit and family tax credit, to get by. That means all of us are subsidising those giant profits.

And the supermarkets are doing this while destroying local businesses, hollowing out town centres until all that is left are charity stores, pound shops and phone shops.

I was recently in Leominster, where local Green Party members are at the centre of a fight to stop two proposed new out-of-town supermarkets. That's in addition to the existing one whose arrival was a huge blow to the town centre.

Good local businesses have managed to survive - I was particularly impressed by the surviving green grocer, Parry's: a family business with wonderfully fresh local produce and helpful service particularly for the frail and disabled, for whom produce would be fetched to their basket. It's a community hub, a service, and a thriving small business, providing far more benefit than any big supermarket.

Of course the supermarkets and their defenders in the government are crying out that this tax would raise food prices. But what we need is a balanced equation here - a count of the cost to communities, to individuals, of supermarkets. (And you'd have to add in the health costs of much of their food and selling practices, and the traffic - congestion, emissions and air pollution - their out-of-town model generates.) It wouldn't totally balance the scales, but local councils obtaining this levy from them could help other beneficial businesses and support cut-to-the-bone public services.

The Green Party is calling on the government to live up to its claim of supporting local decision-making, to let these democratically elected councils act for their communities and impose the levy if they so decide.

And once that's happened, then we could start on a serious effort to making multinational companies make a fair contribution to our overall national community - to the costs of the schools and hospitals, roads and law-and-order that are essential to businesses and their profits.

Yes, many of the same companies would be affected by this too.

But when they're paying their way, on a level playing field, small businesses and cooperatives could again flower and grow in communities around the country. We'd all benefit, and we'd be on our way to transforming our economy so that it works for the common good, not just for the few.