The Taste West Sussex food and drink summit was a fantastic celebration of local food and that is a wonderful tribute to so many people, who have put so much work in to get us to where we are today.
Our shop, The Sussex Produce Company in Steyning, has been open for ten years and when we got our alcohol licence back in 2011, there were 21 breweries in Sussex. Today, there are 60.
We have some of the best wineries in the world on the South Downs, as well as some of the best food and drink producers.
However, all is not well in the world of local food and it would be amiss of us if we indulged purely in a bit of self-congratulatory back slapping and ignored the elephant in the room.
I am a passionate supporter of local food but local food needs local outlets, local retailers, and these are under threat.
In five years, more than 13,000 specialist stores around the UK have closed and the small independents’ share of the grocery market has fallen to just six per cent, while the supermarkets’ share has increased to 88 per cent.
A report from Manchester Metropolitan University suggests that at the current rate of demise, there will be no independent retailers left by 2050, and a report by the All Party Parliamentary Small Shops Group predicts that many will have ceased trading by 2020.
Those that stock locally-grown produce are of especial concern. In the last year alone we have lost Crossbush Farmshop outside Arundel, Sussex Farm Foods in Bury, Saltdean Fruits, Rag Dolly Polly in Forest Row, Gilbert & Bashford in Worthing, Fresh in Billingshurst and Aggies in Brighton. Many more are hanging on by their fingernails.
Without local retailers, local wholesale markets have shrunk and disappeared. Twenty years ago, Brighton wholesale market boasted 19 businesses, with extra space for market gardeners to sell their produce directly to the trade. Today, only TG Fruits and Premier are left.
Wholesalers are often rather overlooked but they are important for fruit and veg because without them, small-scale farmers, the backbone of the countryside since Anglo Saxon times, have no easy outlet for their produce. They stop farming and their land is sold off for housing or for golf clubs, never to return.
These changes are not inevitable, indeed on the contrary, they are the result of conscious decisions by politicians, planners and regulators who for decades have allowed giant, out-of-town supermarkets to destroy our high streets, to dismember our farming communities and to grow into effective monopolies.
For millennia, local food was a way of life but over the last 30 years, the growth of the big supermarkets has required the development of industrial-sized farms, often abroad, to satisfy their enormous, centralised distribution systems. This model is neither sustainable nor local, nor in the interests of basic food security.
Of course, not all supermarkets are the same and Southern Co-op is a great example of a community retailer, owned by its customers and genuinely championing local produce, but Tesco is coming up to having 40 million sq ft of selling space in the UK alone and last year Aldi announced plans to quadruple in size.
There is an alternative and that is to support the infrastructure that small scale food producers need. Insist on public procurement of local food for hospitals and schools, effective regulation against the big supermarkets and an end to a planning system that risks councils being effectively blackmailed into approving new supermarkets because of the cost of fighting continuous legal appeals.
We need meaningful support for our high streets in the form of free car parking, legislation so landlords cannot leave commercial A1 properties empty for more than six months and a streamlining of the crippling bureaucratic burdens on small businesses.
Many will know exactly what I am talking about, for the list is literally, as long as your arm. I’m thinking of the back office requirements of VAT, PAYE, National Insurance, P45s, P60s, P35s, health and safety, fire regulations, environmental health, licensing, planning, pensions, maternity, paternity, adoption rights, flexible working, holiday pay, sickness pay, the Living Wage and employment law. Even deducting money from employees, via a complex set of percentages and pay scales, who do not pay their local council tax.
Do not misunderstand me. I am a believer in regulation. There are many, often very large, bad businesses out there, so it is not that we don’t need those things. However, the system must be made more user friendly if small operations are to have any hope of complying at the same time as trying to run a business and generate a profit.
We must also protect and support the fantastic initiatives like West Sussex County Council’s Beautiful Outdoors project to attract tourism to the area, local food festivals like the annual one run by Horsham District Council, farmers markets and high profile events such as the Sussex Food and Drink Awards.
We are very lucky in Sussex to have some of the best food producers in the country but if local, sustainable food is to be more than a passing fashion, we need urgent change in how food is sold, or there will be no one left to sell it.
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