Six months ago my third wife and I had a daughter called Ishpriya. It made me wonder; will the destruction of our high streets be complete by the time she is an adult? And will chain stores be the only place from which you can buy? In order to head off this horrible thought my daughter Diana and I decided that it was necessary to fight back.
On 1 December last year, we launched a cultural revolution in a fascinating market street in central London. Lambs Conduit Street is one of those streets you find by mistake. You come across it, probably, when you have lost your way coming out of Russell Square tube station, or got confused heading north from Kingsway in Holborn. But once you discover it, you soon realise that it is an oasis of sanity. A place where shops and community have come together. And because of that we felt it was the best place to launch our revolution – the Wedge Card.
This little plastic card is a tool, a simple and practical way to help you support your local high street. It gives you the means to help by giving you extra reason to shop locally. It gives you breaks, offers and discounts only open to Wedge Card members. And as well as supporting your high street through shopping there, a substantial part of the monies raised go to support your community’s social programmes.
As the writing on the card says: ‘Wedge Card is a new way to get discounts and special offers from local and independent businesses. From bookshops to butchers, cafés to carnivals – buy your favourite things and help re-energise your local community.’
Fifteen years ago I launched The Big Issue. There are many similarities. But the principal one is that they are both about the marketplace. The Big Issue is about bringing homeless people to the marketplace so that they can earn their own money. So that they can learn to become independent of the handouts given to them and to help them sustain themselves. The marketplace helps the homeless become, like the rest of us, the individuals that we want to be. Rather than have other people decide what is best for us.
The Wedge Card sees the marketplace as a place to sort out social justice issues. Small and independent shops are our only defence to ensure that our communities continue. That we don’t end up in a dystopia already hinted at by the speed at which our high streets are dissolving. We have to arrest the destruction of the local high street, otherwise we will end up with a lifeless world full of vast warehouses. A world where we are encouraged to over-shop and then return defeated to our homes. What a recipe for social disaster. A recipe, in fact, to make the community more and more a place of antisocial behaviour.
The fight for our high streets is similar to stopping the destruction of the rainforests, the mass pollution of rivers, and the wars over oil and scarce resources. All these issues are one and the same thing.
If my campaign to be the next Mayor of London is successful, I will be issuing ASBOs to any business that destroys neighbourhoods and effaces communities.
Planning applications will have to pass a new social audit. Urban planning should be about protecting communities and high streets from destruction by badly monitored commercial forces, not about giving an extra leg up to big and often socially thoughtless businesses.
The destructiveness of these monopoly businesses is motivated by profit rather than common sense. They must put the needs of financial investors first, in order to maximise shareholder value. They must continually grow and create ever more profits. They are driven by a zest to get every last morsel of value out of the marketplace, even if it means destroying our civilisation. And the local high street is one of the most tangible means by which we measure our society.
What is so strange about the growing pressure of supermarkets to spread everywhere is that the spread will eventually harm not just us, but them.
Without community you have no sociability. Without sociability you have no personal safety. The anonymous landscape of supermarkets and national chains will increase the alienation of people. And that alienation will make the world a much riskier place for everyone, including the shareholders of the supermarkets, to live in.
On an environmental level, these massive supermarkets and chains encourage us to live way beyond our means. Our global environment is being run like a business in liquidation. If the supermarkets were to run their business with no idea of what their cash flow and asset base was, they would very quickly become bankrupt. But that is how they use (and encourage us to use) our natural resources.
Since launching the Wedge Card, we have received an overwhelming response from the independent shops we’ve been in contact with. They have signed up in their droves, and all of them report that this is a timely intervention. After years of bombardment by multi-million dollar advertising and PR campaigns, it is not surprising that the common, automatic choice is to step into a chain store. What we need to do now is get people to re-evaluate their shopping habits. To think about where they spend their money, and the significance of those choices. Because today, where you shop is equally as important as how you vote. Shop locally and you are voting for community, for enterprise and for a better quality of life.
A little over six months after our beginning, the Wedge Card name is everywhere. What started on a small street in Bloomsbury has now spread through Hackney, Peckham, Islington, Marylebone, Soho, Southwark and all across the capital.
Gradually we will spread around the country and give people the incentive to make a change by supporting the backbone of our community, our high streets. We are coming to a high street near you! So look out, and check out: http://www.wedgecard.co.uk/
John Bird was born in Notting Hill in 1946 to a London Irish family. He spent much of his youth homeless on the streets, and in and out of prison for theft. Fifteen years ago he founded The Big Issue and he is now running for Mayor of London.
This article first appeared in the Ecologist September 2007