I DON'T know how others felt but I suffered a pang of real sorrow when I heard that the
Co-operative Group was about to finally pull out of running department stores.
There can be few of my generation (in their early 50s) who cannot recall with pleasure the visit to the cornucopia of what was on sale in such facilities.
It seemed that even if all other places would let us down the Co-op would always have it, no matter how obscure the purchase might be.
Maybe this just reflects the way of the world with shopping becoming ever more specialist and about scale, but it must sadden everyone associated with the Co-operative Movement that we have apparently been forced to make this decision.
Of course given that the Movement is still so dependent upon retailing any backward shift is likely to cause concern and anger in equal measure. Naturally this says as much about changing consumer tastes as it does about whether our remaining stores are fit for purpose.
For many including myself it has become a somewhat academic debate as we lost our nearest store in Bristol a generation ago. However if we are no longer able to compete with the pantheons of the retailing industry what should we be doing instead?
For me this is easy to answer. Never has there been such a need for a re-vitalisation of co-operative principles than in how we can fill the vacuum left by the ever greater concentration of retail power by servicing local communities through various forms of community enterprise.
You don't have to buy completely into the mantra of the New Economics Foundation that society has been infected by the growth of clone and ghost towns to realise that we are now often bereft of basic service provision in many villages and smaller market towns.
There is now no alternative but to furnish those areas with facilities being organised and run in a very different way.
Now this may involve recognising that we will have to merge normal business techniques and rewards with the assimilation of the best of the voluntary sector including those who will give their time for altruistic purposes. But faced with nothing else being in place surely this is a price worth paying.
What will be required is for the communities involved to re-think how they will operate. Rather than continuing to worship on the high altar of consumerism through the opening up of ever more and ever bigger supermarkets we will need to shop locally, to get more sourced locally.
You never know this novel approach may have the dual advantage or reducing food miles – the most unsustainable form of living – and giving a real boost to local producers.
Thankfully the Co-op has taken the lead here. In the case of Oxford, Swindon and Gloucester Society, just of course merged with the West Midlands Society, we have had the provision of Local Harvest for some years now.
This has given Co-op customers access to local food producers breaking away from the amorphous centralised food chains of other supermarkets. Pleasingly this produce has been made available to voluntary shops in the best spirit of community enterprise.
While it must be understood that this is just a first stage in recapturing the initiative from the retail monopolists, it is invaluable to make a stand for those who do not want to just carry on in the direction that Tesco plc will be synonymous with the British state in the same way that Japan was taken over by its major companies from the 1960s onwards.
What is now required is that the Government also responds at long last by introducing the statutory code for supermarkets so that they have clear guidelines on how to behave and that we really do take action to prevent any further monopolisation of our retailing by enacting controls on mergers and market control.
• David Drew is Labour/Co-op MP for Stroud.