Tuesday, 21 December 2010

And another thing - ethics, tax and supermarkets

The gathering consensus that Mendip District Council's Development Brief appears to be a useful yardstick against which to assess planning proposals for this site suggests that some sort of ‘food store’ is likely to be part of any viable package. Can the community turn the ConDem’s ‘Localism’ agenda to its advantage, perhaps? Rather than having a particular supermarket operator imposed upon us by developers could we take a proactive role in choosing the firm that best fits with our aspirations for Frome?

While any mixed community is going to have widely divergent priorities and preferances, the 2 most frequently cited reasons for locating a supermarket at Saxonvale have been proximity to the town centre (accessibility) and the enticement it allegedly provides to draw in other retailers to set up here. Neither of these criteria favour any particular supermarket operator. How then, in an ideal world, would we decide?

In a town with a marked interest in fair trade, local sourcing, sutainability and transition to a post peak oil economy it could be argued that only the most ethical of supermarkets should be considered as being suitable for Saxonvale. A good place to start thinking about this is the Ethical Consumer website’s “Ethical buyer’s guide to supermarkets” which gives the following hierarchy (best to worst): Waitrose, M&S, Sainsbury’s, Co-op, Morrisons, Somerfield, Tesco, Asda…

While there are many criteria against which the ethical performance of supermarkets are measured, the Ethical Consumer website is surprisingly quiet on the subject of tax avoidance. Guess who said this: “The supermarkets don’t just have the planning system working in their favour, they’ve also got the tax man eating out of the palm of their hands. They say that ‘every little helps’, but then set up hugely complex tax avoidance schemes… Just look at what Tesco, our biggest retailer, is able to do… It may be legal, but it’s wrong.” (Nick Clegg, speech, 12.11.08)  One explanation for the relative silence on this subject may be the MacDonalds-like aggression with which certain supermarkets pursue allegations, witness The Guardian’s legal battle with Tesco in 2008.

The UK Uncut campaign seeks to contrast the current government’s enthusiasm for cutting public services with their disinclination to act on the massive tax avoidance of large corporations. If you haven’t already tuned into this, do start to take note. It can only be a matter of time before the campaign turns its attention from Topshop, HSBC, Boots and Vodaphone to multinational supermarkets. UK Uncut Campaigners argue that were these corporations to pay their fair share of tax on the astronomical profits that they make there would be much less need to make cuts. Tax Research UK estimates that up to £120bn is lost to the treasury through tax avoidance (Observer, 19.12.10 “Big companies fall silent as vocal protestors win propaganda war”).

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