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Community / Carmichael raises Co-op concerns in parliament

Orkney and Shetland MP Alistair Carmichael MP.Orkney and Shetland MP Alistair Carmichael.

THE IMPACT two proposed Co-op convenience stores could have on local shops – as well as Shetland food producers – has been raised at Westminster by Northern Isles MP Alistair Carmichael.

It comes after the Liberal Democrat wrote to Shetland Islands Council planning staff to outline his concerns over the proposals.

National retailer Co-op hopes to open two stores at Stove in Sandwick and East Voe in Scalloway in a £1.2 million investment which could create up to 30 new jobs.

However, the local retail sector says they could have a significant impact on local shops in the villages as well as wholesalers and suppliers – potentially causing the loss of far more jobs.

Speaking in a parliamentary debate on UK meat and dairy produce, Carmichael highlighted the important role played by independent shops in the isles and their role in supporting local food producers.

“[Shetland’s local farming trade] is, I would suggest, an exemplar for how agriculture can feed into a rural or island economy such as ours,” he said.

“Crucial to that operation, however, is the existence of a thriving network of local shops. My concern today is that it’s many of these local shops that are currently under threat.

“Recently the Co-op Group has launched an application for two further Co-ops in communities which are currently served by a variety of small, thriving local independent shops.

“These local shops are quite clear that if these applications are granted then the future for them does look to be pretty bleak. That network of rural shops, however, is absolutely critical to food production in the Northern Isles.

“So, the farmers that I’ve spoken about who are now producing finished cattle for slaughter and sale in the local retail sector will struggle if that network of local shops is not there.

“One of the local shops that will be most directly affected told me last week that they reckon that they take goods from no fewer than eighty different local suppliers. These are all small and medium sized enterprises that are never going to be selling in in the same quantity to a big outlet.”

Carmichael said that while the Co-op does take local produce, “if you listen also to the local food producers they will tell you that the Co-op will only take their products on their terms”.

“Local suppliers cannot survive on the margins that the supermarkets give them, so the existence of that network of local shops is absolutely critical to the future viability of agriculture in Orkney and Shetland,” he said.

“The Co-op does have a long tradition of being at the heart of Highland and Island communities, but the Co-op Group today is a very, very different beast. They operate, effectively, in the same predatory manner, bearing down on the suppliers in communities such as mine, as you would expect of any other supermarket.

“I do hope that they will understand the damage that they risk doing to the very delicate and complex economic ecosystem that communities such as ours rely on. Once you lose an economic ecosystem such as that, you will never easily recreate it.”

Co-op says both Sandwick and Scalloway have “sufficient population and demand to support a new store”.

A spokesperson previously said: “The stores will be located to better serve the communities in Scalloway and Sandwick, making it a total of four in Shetland, in addition to those existing in Brae and Lerwick.

“The development would be subject to planning consent and approval and would enable Co-op to develop a convenience store which would provide greatly improved access to food and other essential, every-day services, for the community.”

The Co-op also clarified that they are not planning to build a convenience store in Bixter, after a letter sent to the MP appeared to indicate that the Westside village could also see a new store.

Scottish Parliament election, 6 May 2021