THE BLOG

Living Wage Week: The Big Business Model Needs Changing

07/11/2014 17:13 GMT | Updated 07/01/2015 10:59 GMT

I spend a lot of my time as Green Party leader talking to people who own and run small businesses. And if there's one overall message from them, whether they're in retail, in manufacturing or in services, it's that business conditions are tough.

Particularly for the retailers: they feel squeezed, battered, threatened, by the big chains. And these are the survivors, the ones who hung on when big out-of-town supermarkets and chains created the weekend traffic jams and emptied out town and city centres.

I think of the brilliant greengrocer I visited in Leominster, the lovely chain of local shops in Clarendon Park in Leicester, the iconic Mill Road in Cambridge.

And now they're seeing those same big chains flood back into towns and suburbs, trying, often despite strong local resistance, to set up on almost every street corner, to sweep out all competition.

For those small businesses who supply big businesses it's also tough. The law doesn't do nearly enough to protect them from the huge imbalance of power that comes with commercial muscle - the fact that the near-monopoly status of the big chains means there's only a handful of customers available if food or other manufacturers want to achieve any kind of scale.

We didn't get a supermarket ombudsman, but rather unfortunately a watered-down "adjudicator" - and the unfolding Tesco scandal looks likely to expose the continuing dubious practices that have made running a farming or small food manufacturing business, already a tough job, even harder.

I know first-hand what that's like. As a teenager and student I worked for a neighbour who had a very successful wholesale hardware business selling mostly to supermarkets. It was so successful he almost went broke most months: he was on 90-day payment terms with the supermarkets, which all too often stretched to 120 days. So it would be four months before he got money for the goods supplied, and every month the supermarket wanted more. And every month he had to beg the bank manager to extend his overdraft.

For every small business that's competing fairly, it can be tough. There are very few corner greengrocers that have a dozen subsidiaries in the Cayman Islands where mysteriously most of their profits are made. They are paying their share for the road that serves their shop, and the schools and hospitals their customers rely on, unlike, say Amazon.

They also tend to treat their staff better - because they're not numbers on a rota, but people, often friends. So they're less likely to use zero-hours contracts and less likely to dump workers when the going gets tough. They get benefits for that of course - this being Living Wage week there's lots of businesses singing the praises of that - but it also comes at a cost.

You might remember that when this government came into office, four and a half very long years ago, they were promising a transformation of our economy.

Yet there's no sign of that, of the kind of changes that would benefit small business. Instead we've seen the steamroller of big business continue to roll down our high-streets, through our small manufacturing sector.

We've seen rhetoric about making big business and particularly the multinationals pay their taxes, but action from George Osborne that's gone in the opposite direction.

And we've seen those big business "corner stores" behaving in ways that can only be described as anti-social and illegal. Most of them operate on the basis of just-in-time deliveries. There's no store-room on site, but goods go straight from the HGV outside on to the shelves. So they're not paying business rates on storerooms, unlike most independents.

I once had cause to spend some time opposite one of these, and they had, entirely illegally, an HGV-sized space coned off on the road all day. Then they left the trolleys the goods came in on the pavement, blocking an already narrow route for pushchairs, walking frames and all pedestrians until the next HGV arrived. It was a 24-hour store, so deliveries came at 2am or 3am - with the crashing, the banging and the shouts being a considerable inconvenience to the neighbourhood.

This kind of anti-social behaviour cannot be allowed to continue: the big business model is going to have to change.

The Green Party says that we need to rebalance our economy, rebuilding the economic strength of communities around the country on the basis of small businesses and cooperatives, having money circulating around economies rather than swooshing off to a convenient tax haven.

To give small business a chance we need to make big business and multinationals pay their fair share of taxes and give their staff decent wages and conditions. They need to treat their suppliers decently, obey the law and not act anti-socially.