Twenty years ago, it was architects, now it is supermarkets (and giant out-of-town stores such as the Trafford Centre). There is always someone to blame. In the us, there used to be a game show where a huge rotating arrow on a spindle stopped to determine whether contestants had won or lost. It was called the Fickle Finger of Fate. Older readers will be aware that this is not a game at all, but life itself. If you lose, there is always someone to blame: lackadaisical smear-testers; policemen suspended on full pay; parents driving their children to school; bogus applicants for political asylum. But why out-of-town stores? It is amazing how many people profess to hate them. They range from connoisseurs of fine architecture who wince at the niggardly clock-towers and bountiful car-parks, to conspiracy theorists who hold them responsible for the genocide of the shop-keeping class.
Whoever they are, all supermarket-haters have two things in common: they are heavy users of these stores themselves (they must be as the four giants account for 70 per cent of the uk food market), and they all fake amnesia when it comes to remembering what life was like before supermarkets existed. Tiny shops specialised in tiny stocks and unhelpful opening hours. Not for nothing did a man from Bulgaria take home a video of what an Asda store was like, because it was so wonderful. But then not for nothing was it that an anti-supermarket fanatic immediately replied with a trumped- up story about how wonderful it was to take a holiday in Bulgaria because there were no supermarkets there.
Just like the war over complementary medicine, the war over supermarkets has no facts; just propaganda. One side, academics claim that 50,000 village shops have disappeared in the last 10 years. On the other, unconvincing landowners make implausible claims for happy local networks smashed by the arrival of a truck-load of Egyptian potatoes. Supermarket spokespersons stubbornly insist that the jury is still out on who is to blame for the closure of high-street shops - for all they know, parking restrictions or pick-our-owns could be at fault. Finally the government acts, or threatens to, promising to charge motorists for parking in supermarket car-parks, then changing its mind. Predictably, the anti-marketeers jeer that the government is powerless when confronted by the globalised big four. Predictably, the pro-marketeers shake their heads over e-coli and stress the necessity for the highest possible standards of food hygiene - knowing that surgical cleanliness can never be attained by bumbling local suppliers. And so the debate smoulders on.
As for the battered small shopkeepers, they seldom speak up for themselves, as befits their exterminated status. According to newspaper reports, one in Avon quit after 64 years because his shop had been robbed 235 times. Some in Leeds claim to be under siege from ram-raiders. Others protest about counterfeit goods. Nothing about supermarkets. What nobody will admit is that out-of-town supermarkets have wholesaled retailing. The genie is out of the bottle and no-one will ever get it back in.