Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Watching my town centre slowly die.......

I have just returned from a stroll round my town centre and noticed that yet another shop has announced it is closing - four weeks before Christmas, a trendy men's cothes shop, nice position on a corner site, in a pedestrianised street. It seems to have had everything going for it - though there are three similar shops within 50 yards, including a branch of 'Jules'. What is going wrong?

My home town is typical of a hundred similar French towns - 120,00 population plus a further 100,000 or if you count the outlying suburbs. There is an excellent bus service, with fares at just 1.20 euros, plus the '1 euro bus' with a subsidised fare to nearby villages. There is plenty of public on-street parking - 1 euro will buy you two hours, plus private underground and five to six storey parking - all less than 5 minutes wak away.

The town offers all the services needed by the regional population - schools, a university, a large hospital and several clinics, a range of supporting medical services (I can count at lease five centres offering routine blood tests), specialist doctors, legal services, the court of justice, cinemas, concert halls, a huge theatre complex etc. There are daily open-air markets and a huge covered complex opening in 2017.

And yet it is dying as a commercial centre. There are some streets where at least half the shops are closed and boarded up, Sundays are totally dead on Sundays outside the summer season, yet the town offers several museums, art galleries and carefully signposted historic churches and monuments. Mondays (where many shops remain closed) and Tuesdays are quite, there is some activity on Wednesday afternoon which is the scholl and college half day (spent by the kids roaming round the town centre) while Thursday and Fridays are slight more lively, and Saturday the main shopping day.

While the chamber of commerce and many small business owners wring their hands when talking about the decline, the town and regional councils insist on developing massive out-of-town shopping centres - one north and another south of the city. Although accessible by bus they are largely dependant on people arriving by car for the weekly 'big shop'. The centres are built around one or more well known hypermarkets, and  there are typically household and furniture shops, DIY hangers and electrics and electronics supermarkets. As well as the catering facilities neeeded to feed the host of hungy shoppers (though the town centre is still favoured for evening meals.

The practical result is as I describe - the slow and painful death of the town centre......What are the possible remedies?

According to American town planning expert Jane Jacobs*, for a cirty or district to survive and remain attractive there are basically four essential requirements:

- A sufficiently large mix of people including residents, workers and visitors who generate 'traffic' at different times of the day - early morning arrivals (for example, for work), residents who spread their presence over other times of the day (mid-morning or afternoon) and visitors (not just tourists but people from outside the area who are there for another purpose - a business meeting, to visit the local library, a doctor's appointment etc).

- The area must be easy to get around on foot. Office workers, for example, with a one hour lunch break do not wanter to walk more than five or ten minutes to grab a quick lunch or take-away snack, to do some essential shopping etc.

- The district must include a sufficiently wide variety of activities - not just office blocks but services such as a library, shops, restaurants, repair services - and if it is to remain alive in the evening, entertainment.

- There must be sufficient numbers of people at all times of days who are seeking and using these services.

Examples where these precepts fail are the City of London or virtually any major financial centre which is 'closed' for the weekend.  Or a purpose built cultural centre such as London's South Bank, an unattractive concrete wilderness ideally sited on the river Thames but difficult to access - compared with Covent Garden when the wholesale market moved out, but older buildings were preserved, business's created, and added to the existing theatres, the area developed naturally and is a success.

Even in the deep south of France more shops are now staying open over lunchtime when before they too shut between noon and 2.00 pm but as in the case of my own town many still cannot generate sufficient traffic to stay in business. Residents also have drifted to the edge of town and the suburbs for the reasons noted above, and gradually the city centre has declined.

*'The death and life of great American cities' Jane Jacobs, Random House, New York, 1961 plus other more recent titles, available on Amazon. 

Monday, November 28, 2016

Preventing food waste

A Danish supermarket chain has this week announced the opening of a second shop, dedicated entirely to food that has approached or passed its official 'sell buy' date, and on sale at approximately half the normal cost.

This follows the French action taken twelve months ago to ban supermarkets from destroying or discarding food - sometimes contaminating it with bleach - and to enter into formal contracts with charity food-banks for its collection and re-distribution. An estimated 100,000 tons of food reach charitable institutions this way annually. Charities argue that more could still be done as the more food that is collected the greater the need for volunteers to help in its collection and distribution, as well as additional transport, storage space and refrigeration.

This past weekend French shoppers were asked to donate food as part of their weekly shopping and shortly after 9.00am my local supermarket seemed to be doing quite well, with half a dozen volunteers handing out clear plastic bags which shoppers filled separately and passed to the checkout operator, before handing them over to the volunteer collecors.

Pioneers of these various initiatives are now campaigning for the French law to be extended to the rest of Europe to help reduce food wastage and help feed the hungry poor.  

Monday, November 21, 2016

The price of a French 'veggie-burger' - will shock you!

As reported in an earlier post, France is undergoing a veritable organic food revolution and a TV programme* on Channel 6 last night went behind the scenes to reveal a number of its hidden aspects.

- First, the consumption of meat has dropped by 7% since this time last year with sales of organic (bio in French) products are up by 20%. While very few French are actually vegetarian or vegan, there is a growing class of 'occasional veggie' eaters - known as 'flexitarians' - who try and eat a vegetable based product once a week.

- These changes are largely the result of the growing popularity of the 'veggie-burger' which looks and tastes like the real thing, but is in fact made of soya based ingredients and vegetables such as tomatoes (which can give the product a meat colour).  

- Virtually all the major manufacturers of meat-based products have started producing vegetable versions of burgers, sausages, 'chicken' nuggets etc.

- What the programme makers described as 'scandalous' is that while producing the vegetables alternatives costs less than half that of the meat versions - they are sold by retailers at double the price! The same higher prices are found in restaurants and snack bars offering veggie-burgers on their menus.

- Some manufacters and retailers (supermarkets especially) are however starting to compete with their own-brand cheaper versions.

- Retailers selling organic vegetables are sadly still insisting on uniform colour and shape of raw vegetables, with one producer noting that as a result 30% of his carrots never reach the shops and are sold as cattle food. It may be some time before retailers realise that for many vegetarians odd sizes or shapes are not a problem and even add a certain authenticity to the product.

- The second part of the TV programme focussed on the amazing rise in popularity of almonds - mainly from California - where prices have more than quadrupled in the last 12 months. Once again many almond based products such as 'milk' cost much less to produce but are sold at one-third more at the retail level.

* 'Capital' Channel 6 (France) Sunday 20 November 2016.

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Monday, November 14, 2016

Become an 'associate member of the European Union'....

An interesting proposal has been tabled for discussion by a Luxembourg MEP Charles Goerens that would offer a form of individual 'associate membership' of the European Union that would enable British citizens for example to retain the rights they enjoyed in Europe before (and if) Brexit goes ahead.

Such rights include free travel within the European Union (without a visa etc), the right to work and settle, and have access to healthcare. This idea echoes recent statements by European legal experts that the British, for example, who moved and settled in France while Britain was still an EU member, have certain 'acquired rights' which cannot be arbitrarily taken away following the Brexit referendum.

There are also many British - don't forget nearly 50% voted to stay - who are bitterly disappointed about the Brexit proposal and wish to retain their links with Europe, whether they actually continue to live in Britain or have settled in another EU country.

It will be interesting to see if this proposal is adopted and how simple or otherwise the process of application. Individual countries have their own rules, in France the process can take up to two years, and the information demanded includes details of your precise status, income etc which some people - such as British State pensioners - might find difficult to to satisfy.

That said, a French 'carte de séjour' has not been required for at least 10 years, so those of us living here may have another 'acquired right' noted above. The number of UK nationals living permanently in other EU states is estimated at over 1 million  - and what about all those other Europeans who have settled in Britain?

Once again a question of 'wait and see' until the British government comes up with firm proposals and their potential consequences.

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Thursday, November 10, 2016

Household debt in America

The number of confirmed downsizers in America may be statistically small, but what is certain is the huge amount of household debt among those still living in large houses, either by choice or necessity (such as inability to sell their home and move).

The figures are alarming:

- Average consumer debt was recently estimated at 97,000 dollars per household, a mix of mortgage repayments, credit card expenditure and repayment of other loans

- A quarter of owners surveyed whose property includes a two-car garage admitted they could not park their car(s) due to the amount of surplus possessions already stored in the garage

- While one in ten large house-owners rent additional external storage lockers (the subjet of numerous French TV programmes) to store their surplus possessions

- Many confess that they do not even enter some of the rooms in their large homes.

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Friday, November 4, 2016

France's organic revolution

For a country that has an estimated less than 2 per cent vegetarians (boosted by British residents?), in the last few months there has nonetheless been a veritable revolution in the offer, distribution, purchase and consumption of organic - known as 'bio' products. The evidence is all around us as evidenced by the statistics I have assembled below which are impressive.  Today France is number three in Europe, after Spain and Italy, and ahread of Britain!

The bare facts  
- Between 2014 and 2014 (latest figures available) the bio market overall grew by 15%
- There were 9% more producers of bio products
- There was a 23%  increase in the amount of agricultrual land turned over to bio production
- Overall 5% of French agricultural land is is now dedicated to bio production

Best regions for bio 
- If you are a confirmed organic consumer then the best place to be is the south west - the broad sweep of territory along the Mediterranean coast, from the Pyrenees round to the border with Italy, notably Languedoc-Roussillon, Midi-Pyrénées, Pays de Loire, Rhone-Alpes, and Provence-Cote d'Azur.

Creating employment
- Bio production tends to be labour intensive compared with mechanised farming, some 26,000 producers have taken on 7% more workers, with some 69,000 now employed in the industry

- There are also 9,500 firms engaged in preparing bio products for sale (ready-made dishes, packaging etc) and 3,400 distributors/transport operators - with a total of around 100,000 workers

- For a market estimated at 5 billion euros.

- Most of this is for consumption at home (as opposed to eating out) though the number of restaurants offering total or partial bio meals is also increasing.

The retail network
- Bio products are not only found in specialist 'health food shops' but increasingly alongside traditional products in supermarkets, direct sales (internet etc) and direct from producers to consumers ('farm shops' etc)

- Traditional bio specialist shops include Bio-coop (nearly 400 branches), La Vie Claire (250), Biomonde (200), Naturalia  (100+) and several smaller groups

- Among the most important supermarket chains are Monoprix (my local source), Carrefour, Auchan, Intermarché, Casino, ELeclerc etc., some stocking as many as 550 references (eg. Carrefour).

- Surveys have shown that overall consumption of bio productions is on the increase:

- 89% occasionally at home (54% ten years ago)

- 67% once per week (37% in 2003)

- 23% every week

- 10% every day

Consumers give their reasons why

Against a background of falling expenditure as a proportion of overall household spending (mortgage, rent, utilities etc), among the reasons given for spending on bio products even during la crise, consumers say

- 82% have confidence in bio products

- 56% like 'the better quality'

- 59% are motivated by environmental concers

- 63% cite health reasons.

Media coverage

In line with the above, it must be acknowledged that press and television coverage of the food industry has been extensive, with programmes about the use of presticides, scandals involving production methods and conditions in abattoirs. I have observed notable increases in this type of coverage in the last 12 to 18 months.

Principal sources I have used include:

- - statistics, accreditation for organic producers etc and references to other sites

- 'Manger bio c'est pas du luxe' by Dr Lylian Le Goff (Hachette Marabout 2016) - excellent history, statistics, analyses of food products, etc. Invaluable.

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