Local cappuccino for local people

Backward campaigners trying to prevent Costa coffee from opening a shop in Totnes should wake up and smell their own hypocrisy.

Rob Lyons

Topics Politics

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‘Adios, Costa!’, declare campaigners in the Devon market town of Totnes, the first and most famous of the UK’s ‘transition towns’. Totnes campaigners have made it their mission to fight the frothy-coffee invader. ‘Many of us are committed to preventing Costa from endangering independent local businesses and turning Totnes into a “clone town”‘, declare the group’s posters.

Costa coffee is rapidly becoming Britain’s very own Starbucks, as a coffee chain turned embodiment of evil global capitalism. Part of the Whitbread group of companies that also includes Premier Inn hotels and Beefeater Grill restaurants, Costa has nearly 1,400 branches in the UK and another 800 branches elsewhere. In the eyes of campaigners, the company’s crime is to flog quite nice, if not exactly stunning, coffee everywhere you might suddenly fancy the need for one.

While many towns would be delighted to see a familiar place to get a half-decent coffee open up, Totnes’s green campaigners were appalled when it was announced that Costa would be taking over a prime location. Frances Northrop, of community campaigning group Transition Town Totnes, told the Guardian: ‘We’ve got 42 coffee outlets, all independently owned, a lot of which are struggling, like anywhere else – and if you bring in a retail unit with the buying power and familiarity of Costa, which is the size of three coffee shops, you’re damaging not only those independent businesses, who might go out of business, but their supply chains: growers, producers, drinks suppliers.’ Despite the protests, the local council voted to allow Costa to move in.

The transition-town philosophy seems to be about keeping things local, low-carbon and self-sufficient. According to the local group’s website: ‘Transition Town Totnes began in 2006 as a response to the challenges our community is facing from diminishing oil and gas supplies, coupled with climate change and economic uncertainty. Currently our very existence, from our food and clothes, to our homes and transport, depend on endless supplies of cheap oil.’ In other words, it’s all about developing ‘resilience’ for when the peak-oil manure hits the fan (a moment that has had more postponements than a blizzard-hit football schedule). In short, the transition-town idea is just survivalism for cappuccino-supping West Country hippies.

Which all makes the reaction to Costa rather surprising. Never mind winning or losing planning-committee votes or turning up at the Costa store with pitchforks. All the good people of Totnes need to do to drive the unwanted newcomer out again is to refuse to buy the coffee. The transition-town concept seems to be built on the notion of local communities producing as much of what they need as possible (the town even created the Totnes Pound as a currency that could only be spent locally, so keeping wealth local).

But even the transition-town campaigners know full well that relying on their own local resources would mean being worse off. It’s not the coffee-buying cash of Totnes residents that is the chief concern, but that of another bunch of outsiders: tourists. ‘The bottom of the hill is where most of the tourists arrive’, points out Northrop in the Guardian piece. ‘They come in on the river, or by train, or into the car park there. So they’ll come straight in, and they’ll see a Costa Coffee. And if people are in a new place, a lot of people think: “I’m not going to try the unknown – I’m going to go somewhere that I recognise.”‘

The local-shops-for-local-people transition-town campaigners refer to Costa as an ‘extractive industry’. But extracting cash from all those people pouring off all that fossil-fuel guzzling transport is precisely how picturesque Totnes makes its way in the world. The trouble is that Totnes residents want to enjoy the benefits of modern living – like computers, clothing and, err, imported coffee. But since they do not produce those items themselves, they need some way of paying for these wondrous things. That means they need to do some kind of trade. It might mean Totnes residents travelling somewhere else to earn a living or living on state expenditure from wealth produced elsewhere. It also means selling merchandise, food, drink and services to tourists. Staying local would mean staying poor.

Not only does this display an irrational attitude to all things modern – wanting the advantages of the modern world while striving to stay separate from it – but it smacks of snobbery, too, expressed in the notion of ‘clone towns’. Chain stores, so it seems, are for the riff raff, the ‘sheeple’ who are too dumb to see they are enslaved to big corporations. In place of all those small-town high streets that contain some combination of the same-old big stores you find everywhere, the anti-clone-town campaigners desire individuality, authenticity and autonomy. What they get is, er, an awful lot of organic coffee shops, purveyors of artisan tat and charity shops that are ‘free’ to struggle to survive.

It is the clone towns that have genuine variety. They might have the same variety as every other town, but big chains can afford to specialise across hundreds or thousands of branches in a way that small shops cannot. That means that residents of quite small towns can have access to a wide variety of consumer goods and foodstuffs in a way that would not have been possible in the past. No surprise, then, that many of the residents of towns that pride themselves on individuality then drive down the road to the local clone town when their needs stretch to more than locally manufactured wicker baskets. How many puff their chests out with pride at having a chainstore-free town, only to get their weekly shop delivered by Waitrose?

The smell of roasting arabica beans permeating from that new branch of Costa might do Totnes a favour – covering up the whiff of hypocrisy. Still, that’s nothing compared to the rank odour emanating from those metropolitan types who cheer for this anti-modern guff and demand that Something Must Be Done about mega-corps taking over the world while living it up in London.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked. His book, Panic on a Plate: How Society Developed an Eating Disorder, is published by Societas. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).) Read his blog here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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