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How did food deserts develop – the evolution of UK food retailing

 

1) English retailing to the 1900s

2) Changes in UK planning regulations

3) Recent planning law developments (since the 1990s)

  3.1) The mezzanine floor / internal alterations loophole

  3.2) The sequential test, town centres before out-of-town sites

  3.3) The impact test, is there a need / demand for a new supermarket?

  3.4) The competition test; discriminating between planning applicants

  3.5) Use of space above the shop

  3.6) Access for the disabled

4) Globalisation and increasing inequality

5) Food technology and social changes

 

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1. English retailing to the 1900s

 

Early English retailing was performed from travelling fairs, travelling from town to town, often appearing in any one location on a weekly basis. There were no ‘shops’ as we see them today; the English word ‘shop’ derives from the German ‘schuppe’, meaning a shed where goods were made (for later retailing in a fair). This meaning of the word ‘shop’ is preserved in the terms ‘shopfloor’ and ‘workshop’.  The word ‘schuppe’ is related to the Saxon word ‘Chepe’, found today in place names like Cheapside and Chipping Norton; ‘chepe’ meant ‘marketplace’, the place where workshop-made goods were sold.  From ‘chepe’ we get the word ‘cheap’, and also the word ‘shopping’.

 

In those days, before the Industrial Revolution, most people lived in the countryside and it was not until 1851 that a majority of the UK population lived in towns and cities.  Households could satisfy most of their needs from their own production, growing their own food, perhaps making their own clothes and furniture.  However by the 1700s, some ‘schuppes’ around the fair or market place began selling goods directly from the workshop premises.  This development marked the start of modern independent shops as we know them today.

 

The transformation of retailing from mobile fair to fixed shop was largely completed by the 20th century.  The new factory workers of the Industrial Revolution, living in cramped urban terraced accommodation, had changed their shopping habits from a weekly visit to a fair to a daily trip to the corner shop.  Houses could be converted, with effectively no planning restrictions, into corner shops.  In the new terraced suburbs, corner houses were more likely to see their front rooms turned into shops than mid-street houses, because footfall was greatest on street corners.  This was the origin of the ‘corner shop’ independent grocery shop of today.

 

Meanwhile, 17th and 18th century high-status family houses with gardens that had been erected along roads leading out of town had declined in status as the countryside behind them became urbanised.  As the higher-income families left these houses, tradesmen took them over, converted the front garden into a shop, used the ground floor as a storage area and lived in the floors above.  This was the origin of many of today’s ‘shopping parades’, lining urban main roads in UK cities.  The former gardens of these houses are now often either a single-storey front extension used as a shop, or have been paved over and appear to form an extension of the street pavement, perhaps used as a car-parking area.  What is today often refereed to as the ‘corner shop’ reached a peak in the 1950s in terms of numbers.  Link to current trends in small shops

 

The next section of this page reviews some of the technological, economic, and political developments that have occurred in the 20th century as they impact the viability of small shops

 

2. Changes in UK planning regulations

 

Changes in planning have had major effects on the location and viability of small shops.  The pre-World War One era of laissez-faire planning gave way, after 1918, to a more centralised idea of how towns and cities should develop.  This was the era of ‘garden cities’ such as Letchworth, with ‘homes fit for heroes’, the soldiers returning from the ‘Great War’ (World War One, 1914-1918).  Such housing replaced the deprived slum terraced housing of the Victorian era.  This period of more controlled land usage meant that shops could be no longer opened anywhere, converted from former houses.  Rather, land use was ‘zoned’, and retail uses were concentrated in designated suburban shopping centres and retail parades.

 

Central government, by keeping local authorities under tight financial control, could ensure they toed the line regarding, for example, allowing supermarket development on EZ or other derelict land.  West Glamorgan Council, covering Swansea, tried to prevent such out-of-town retailing development, to protect city centre shops. However the council was threatened with loss of funds from central government unless it complied.  Gradually, over the latter decades of the twentieth century, planning has come more under the control of central government. This mirrors a general centralisation of functions such as health, education, and transport away from local towards central government. Local authorities, faced with a proposal they didn’t want, scarcely dared to reject it because the developer would appeal, and if they won, the local authority would be faced with expensive legal bills.  The local authority had one weapon remaining; to delay the application in the hope the developer would give up and go away, perhaps as local economic conditions changed. Local environmental protesters could also impose long delays.  This now may change as New Labour is speeding up the planning process, because of complaints of long delays by developers and investors.

 

This socially oriented centralised planning partly reverted, after the Conservative election victory of 1979, back to a more free-enterprise-based approach, under Mrs Thatcher.  Deindustrialisation left large sites on the edge of northern cities which were declared, by the Thatcher government, as Enterprise Zones (EZs) where planning controls were minimal and tax and rates low.  The first retailers to set up on these EZs  were furniture, DIY, and carpet stores; shops requiring large showrooms and vehicular access for customers.  These requirements were expensive in congested town centres.  However by the late 1980s High Street ‘anchor stores’ like Marks and Spencer, John Lewis, Laura Ashley, and Habitat began to move to these out-of-town retail parks too, abandoning their former High Street locations. 

 

There were many advantages t the big retailers in moving from the High Street to EZ locations.  Road connections were good, facilitating ‘just in time’ (kanban) warehouse stocking; in turn this meant less requirement for expensive warehousing space, and greater flexibility in what goods are stocked at what time of day.  The larger premises gave greater economies of scale, and this gave enhanced buying power over a host of smaller suppliers.  Customers liked the free parking and one-stop shopping, although they had to drive further to reach these large supermarkets.

 

In the 1990s, government attitude towards large out-of-town supermarkets cooled, as they were seen as a cause of traffic congestion and increased CO2 emissions.  John major issued the PPG (Policy Planning and Guidance) series – PPG3 dealt with housing, and PPG6 dealt with retailing, for example.  The idea was to redirect development back to urban and brownfield sites.

 

3. Recent planning law developments (since 2000)

 

For Competition Commission decisions, see current issues in food retailing, supermarkets

 

3.1) The mezzanine floor / internal alterations loophole

 

A major worry for both the discount chains and those supporting small independent retailers was that supermarkets could exploit a planning law loophole to double their floor area. Planning permission is not normally required for alterations that do not extend the outside of the building or alter its appearance.  So supermarkets, with ceilings often some 7 metres or more above floor level, could insert an extra floor, doubling their sales area and hence increasing their economies of scale, further undercutting smaller stores. The extra floorspace would have been likely used for non-food goods such as electronics and clothes, further undermining sectors of the High Street where the supermarkets have as yet (2004) made less penetration. By March 2004 some supermarkets had already inserted this floor but in that month the UK government announced that the Planning Bill then before the Lords was to be amended to close this loophole.

 

3.2) The sequential test, town centres before out-of-town sites

 

However the 1996 PPG6 guidelines imposed a ‘sequential test’ regarding the building of a new retail premises, or an extension to an existing shop. Basically, the question was, could this floorspace be provided in the town centre (perhaps as a number of smaller units centrally rather than one unit in the suburbs)?  If not, could it be provided on the edge of the town centre? Only if not here either, should planning permission for the new shop or extension be granted in an out-of-town setting. In 2004 the Labour Chancellor, Gordon Brown, under pressure from major retailers and despite opposition from the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, began to alter the rules. Extensions e.g. to large supermarkets could be exempted altogether from the ‘sequential test’.  Furthermore, if a large retailer could show that there was no room for its proposed large new premises near the town centre, yet not allowing it to be built would deprive the local customer base of cheaper prices gained through economies of scale, then the proposed large new shop should be allowed to be built further out. Of course there will seldom be space available for large new retail premises near town centres; out on the by-pass will be the only available site, just where the retailer wants to be.

 

3.3) The impact test, is there a need / demand for a new supermarket?

 

A White Paper, published in May 2007, changed the ‘sequential test’ to an ‘impact test’ or ‘needs test’, requiring local authorities to have a business plan that allowed for consumer demand in both High Street and out of town settings.  This could make it easier for supermarkets to gain permission for out of town stores, if they can show the town centre should remain viable even with the new development.  As a rough rule, it was estimated that there was a ‘need’ for one supermarket per 50,000 people.

 

3.4) The competition test; discriminating between planning applicants

 

In 2008 the Competition Commission proposed dropping the needs or impact test in favour of a competition test.  This means that applications from supermarkets under-represented in an area could be favoured over those from a supermarket which already has a large local market share.  This would involve a fundamental shift in an underlying principle of planning law, that applications for any particular land use or development should be treated equally from all parties, or companies.  Under the competition test, planners would be expected to favour an application to build a new supermarket from a company with fewer stores already in the area.  Tesco has objected; as market leader, it will be disadvantaged, gain fewer successful applications than smaller chains like Morrison.  Tesco may be forced to sell sites in its land bank, land held by Tesco where competitors might be able to build a supermarket, to other retail chains.  Small shopkeepers are also unhappy as the net outcome may be not one supermarket, a Tesco say, but several competing for trade with the smaller independents.  This is an interesting case of Tesco and the small independent shopkeepers being on the same side of the debate, albeit for rather different reasons.

In 2009 Tesco won an appeal at the Competition Appeals Tribunal against the implementation of the proposed competition test.  The CAT said the new test was too cumbersome and bureaucratic and could restrict investment at a time of economic slowdown. 

 

3.5) Use of space above the shop

 

Use of space above shops could benefit local retailing in several ways.  Besides providing an additional source of rental income, there would be a local consumer market, plus the security of having the area inhabited at all times, possibly deterring burglary and vandalism.  However planners, and property agents, have several reasons to be wary of mixed land uses, that is, office, retail, and residential uses all in the same building.  Property agents desire ‘institutional’ leases; that is, one tenant, long-term, upwards-only, rent reviews.  Having mixed uses means the likelihood of voids of parts of the property for some periods, and perhaps new tenants negotiating a lease below what the previous tenant was paying.  There may be increased risk of property damage if residential use is above offices, for example, baths overflowing and damaging computer equipment in offices below, or fire risk from cooking. There is a perception of greater security risk if office premises cannot be totally secured at night because residents are coming and going.  And planners have since the 1960s at least tended to like to ‘tidy up’ land uses, having areas for one use only, residential, office, industrial, or commercial, bit not many uses together. There may be a safety implication if commercial vehicles are moving in the same area as residents, with children, are moving about.  Residents may complain of noise from commercial vehicles or smells from food outlets.  On the other hand, having residential use mixed in with commercial may improve security for the offices and shops, as it prevents ‘dead areas’ emerging at night, devoid of people. City centres where nobody lives can be menacing places after dark, whereas cities with residents in flats above shops and even offices retain vitality; commercial uses from pubs to late night shops thrive, and the area becomes self-policing to an extent.

 

Shops often have accommodation above them.  Older shops were originally houses, and shops in 1950s parades often were built with flats above.  Often flats over older shops are quite spacious, and cheaper than flats of comparable size elsewhere.  This is because they may be seen as down-market. Particularly in High Street locations, people do not want to live there, because of fears of noise, traffic, and rowdiness. There will likely be no garden, difficult access, by stairs only, and parking may be problematic.  If the council owns the shops, and the flat above, and the tenants are on Housing Benefit, the council sees little profit in renting because it ends up paying a part of its own rent. As it is the poorer tenants who may rent these flats, this is quite likely.  

 

3.6 Access for the disabled

 

The Disability Discrimination Act required all commercial areas, office, retail, public buildings, to be wheelchair-accessible by 2004.  Space above shops is often not accessible to wheelchairs at all, and this could preclude an office use, though not a residential one.  Some have suggested having small local police stations over shops, to improve High Street security. There is a church over a Lancashire shop, dog owner meetings over a Devon shop, and a pub in Derbyshire has received a £42,000 EU grant to start computer classes upstairs   The main attraction for use of space over shops could be to avoid urban sprawl, which was why John Major, Conservative PM, issued the PPG series of planning documents. There are now Living Over The Shop (LOTS) initiatives, the first of which was implemented in Stamford, Lincolnshire, where three previously homeless families were housed over shops there.  On a larger scale, supermarkets are starting to use the space above their premises for flat developments.  Asda is developing flats over its Romford (east London) store, in conjunction with Barratt Homes, and Sainsbury in Richmond (London) and Tesco in Streatham (London) are also being built with flats up to twelve floors high over the store.

 

4. Globalisation and increasing inequality

 

Global communications improved markedly through the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, both electronically and physically.  Telecommunications changed beyond recognition, the Internet developed, and computing power and speed increased vastly.  Shipping became containerised, motorways reduced road transit times by hours or even days, and air travel also expanded.  This benefited companies in several ways. With wider communications, wider spread of advertising through such media as television, and greater economic prosperity through general economic growth, there were huge economies of scale to be had.  For the successful, a virtuous circle could be set up of greater corporate expansion, lower prices yet greater profits through economies of scale, greater market chare, and yet more expansion. The major supermarkets have demonstrated just how powerful such a virtuous circle can be.   

 

However such a strategy depends on continued expansion.  This means smaller fry must be squeezed out, taken over or driven out of business, especially in a market of largely fixed size such as food.  Many smaller supermarkets, and a huge number of independent convenience stores in the UK, have vanished.  As companies grow ever larger, they acquire considerable buying power. When a customer takes a large proportion of the output of a producer, the customer begins to be able to dictate the price they will pay the producer.  UK farms are increasingly being told what price they can expect and what quality food they must produce by the major supermarkets. Economists call this ‘oligopsony’.  This term is rather like its more familiar variant, monopoly.  But whereas in mono-poly (literally, ‘one-seller), there is only one supplier for the market, oligopsony means ‘few-buyers’.  Oligopsonists have similar power to monopolists as regards manipulating the market, but because there are several parties involved, a complex area of economics called game theory has evolved to analyse this situation.

 

The outcome is a small group of very large companies controlling a large section of their market, and competing fiercely on price, as do the largest supermarkets in Britain today.  Besides exercising their buying power, large companies have two more ways of offering lower prices, to perpetuate their expansion and continued gains of economy of scale (if they fail, and begin to lose some market share to a competitor, the virtuous circle collapses; their costs are now above their competitor, who can further undercut their price).  Companies can locate production overseas, where wages are a fraction of European or USA levels. Improved global communications help here, with both trans-shipping the goods and with controlling remote subsidiaries or suppliers that are nominally independent (but still dependent to the main manufacturer for most or all of their trade).

 

Large companies also have considerable political power even in Western countries.  The threat is that they will cut back investment and jobs in a country whose policies do not suit them.  Because the West has lost many jobs to lower wage countries, and governments can lose elections if unemployment is rising, the Western government will likely try and accommodate these corporations, even if what they demand is very different from the prospectus the government was originally elected upon.  Electors remember job losses and recessions far better than broken election promises, and blame governments, not footloose corporations.  Western governments are then faced with a major fiscal dilemma.  They face both falling tax revenue  but if they don’t play ball with the corporations and reduce taxes, unemployment will soar and the fiscal situation will be even worse.

 

Since tax revenue cannot be raised from the large corporations, it must come from somewhere else.  Higher income tax may just drive the highest earners overseas to domicile in tax havens.  One solution is to shift tax from direct (income tax) to indirect (VAT and other purchase taxes such as on fuel and alcohol).  This ultimately means the poor pay more, as they spend a greater proportion of their total income than the rich do of their income.  The rise in indirect taxation contributed to a rise in smuggling alcohol and cigarettes into the UK from mainland Europe for resale, because duties on these items in Belgium and France are much lower.  Local pubs, sometimes a mainstay of the local community, lost trade and closed as alcohol was brought back and consumed at home.  Small shops, dependent on the higher profits of alcohol and cigarettes to keep open, also lost trade and closed.

 

5. Food technology and social changes

 

Pre-technological food production

 

Before the era of European world exploration (swiftly followed by European colonial expansion), people in England and other European countries were largely dependent on natural forces, the climate and ecology, as to how much food they could produce.  A run of good years meant the carrying capacity of the land – the amount of people it could support – rose, and usually the population rose to match.  Then came a run of bad years, a climatic deterioration, and famine and disease reduced the population to match the new lowered carrying capacity.  It was no coincidence that the Black Death of the 14th century carried off so many, just as a period of benign climate in the Middle Ages gave way to the Little Ice Age of the 15th to the 18th centuries.

 

Colonial expansion and food production

 

As Europeans voyaged abroad on missions of exploration, and to find new resources, they discovered not just silver and gold but new foods too.  Potatoes arrived in Britain in 1586, brought back from South America.  Trade routes were opened up by sea to the East Indies, or Spice Islands, as land routes were cut off by expansion of the Ottoman Empire.  Spices could make less palatable food, or food that had deteriorated, still seem palatable, and so was effectively a way of artificially raising the carrying capacity of the land.

 

The Renaissance, and later the Industrial Revolution, brought about innovations in food production too.  In 1701 Jethro Tull invented the seed drill machine, improving farm productivity.  1797 brought the cast iron plough, patented by Charles Newbold, and in 1833 an automatic grain reaping machine was developed by Cyrus Hall McCormick in the USA.  As farms became more productive, more food could be produced with less workers, and rural labourers found themselves increasingly out of work and under the threat of the workhouse regime if they did not migrate to the rapidly growing towns and cities of the Industrial Revolution.  Rural to urban migration was perhaps rarely undertaken voluntarily, for conditions, hard as they were in the countryside, were probably preferable to a low-wage existence in the slums of a 19th century industrial city.  But such migration was often necessary for sheer survival.  Huge numbers of working men, and their families, were separated from the land and their means of survival and self-subsistence; their food came via developing supply chains from ever moiré automated and technological farms.

 

Industrial Revolution and the Corn Laws

 

Britain had enacted the Corn Laws in 1833, which effectively set a floor price for bread.  This price floor protected the aristocratic land owners from losses should there be a bumper wheat harvest and the price of wheat, and bread, then fell.  But the Corn Laws meant higher bread prices for the poor, as there was no equivalent price ceiling should the harvest be meagre and prices rise.  In 1846 the Corn Laws were scrapped and a process of dismantling import duties ion whet coming into the UK began.  The aristocracy were increasingly making their money from industry and commerce, not agriculture, and the Corn Laws were disruptive to factory production; they resulted in higher wage demand, and possibly civil unrest if wages did not feed the workers’ families. 

 

As Britain’s colonial empire grew, the UK’s food was increasingly produced abroad, where labour and land were cheaper.  Britain produced not so much food as factory goods.  In feeding itself from overseas, Britain was merely following the example of earlier empires, such as Rome, who also found it economically effective to import food to the political centre from colonies such as North Africa, the breadbasket of Rome during the days of Empire.  The British Navy ensured continuity of supply, and the countries of South America, formerly Spanish colonies until they achieved independence in the early 19th century, now effectively became economic colonies of the UK.  Argentine produced beef far more cheaply than British farmers could, and this was shipped to Europe.  The technology of shipping rapidly advanced, as steam propulsion replaced sail and iron hulls replaced wooden ones. 

 

Food technology and the urbanisation of Britain

 

Other technologies also boosted food production and hence the UK’s rapidly growing and rapidly urbanising population.  In 1850 a landmark demographic change occurred in the UK; for the first time ever, the number of Britons living in towns and cities exceeded 50% of the total population.  Britain had become officially an urban nation.  Self raising flour was patented in 1845 by Henry Jones of Bristol (UK).  In 1915 cornflakes were patented by Frank Martin; this made what had been a rather unpalatable and indigestible food into a cheap and tasty breakfast dish.  In the USA, barbed wire enabled cattle to be ranched on the Great Plains, where there was insufficient trees to make wooden fences to keep the cows in fields.  In turn, cattle ranching spurred on the growth of railways, market towns, and the general continental development of the USA, and led, through massive economies of scale, to the USA as a superpower of today.  Even tea played a key role, by effectively making the very idea of industrial cities feasible.  Before the Victorians pioneered an effective urban sewerage system, the water supply of cities was always dubious at best, plagued by waterborne diseases such as cholera.  The death rate in Victorian industrial cities would have been far higher, indeed far above the urban immigration and birth rate, if people had drunk their water cold, not boiled so as to kill bacteria; however hot water alone is rather unpalatable for most people.  Tea from Japan had been known about in Britain for centuries, but was very expensive and its consumption limited to the wealthy.  However tea from India was far cheaper, and affordable by the poor.  Indian tea alone was a major reason why Britain needed this particular ‘Jewel in the Crown of the Empire’.

 

Britain, World War One, and food insecurity in the 20th century

 

Britain’s world supremacy, politically and industrially, began to erode by the end of the 19th century.  Not only was America on the rise, but other European countries, notably Germany, were also industrialising fast, and developing their military, especially their navies, too.  In 1910 a German chemist, Carl Bosch, developed the Haber process for converting atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia.  This was very important because ammonia could be made into fertiliser, whereas in nature, only very limited conversion of the 70% of the atmosphere that is nitrogen into plant material can take place, via lightning or via small clusters of plant root bacteria. 

 

In 1914 the inevitable happened and the rising political tensions in Europe, between the growing political-military power of nations such as France, Germany, and Russia, and the older power of Britain, erupted into World War One.  The tinder spark was of course the relatively insignificant political assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand of Austria by a Serbian separatist, Gavril Princip, in June of that year.

 

World War One was to demonstrate the vulnerability of the island nation of Britain to a dependence on imported foods from overseas.  The British had blockaded food imports into Germany, causing food shortages there, and ultimately causing the collapse of Germany at the end of 1918, even after events had seemingly moved in Germany’s favour in 1917 as the Russian Czarist regime collapsed and the new Communist Russia made peace with Germany on the Eastern front.  In 1917 Germany retaliated to the British blockade by itself blockading food imports into the UK, using the new naval innovation of the submarine, or U-boat (Unterzeeboot).

 

Electricity, transport, and two World Wars

 

Meanwhile food related technology moved on.  The end of the 19th century saw major advances in the field of electricity in the USA, producing the so-called ‘electrical wave’ of electricity appliances, from light bulbs and irons to fridges, freezers, and even electric cookers.  The close of the First World War saw the British Army release onto the open market huge numbers of now-surplus lorries.  Road transport in Britain began to take off, major trunk roads like the Liverpool to Manchester road and the Great West Way were built, and rail transport entered a long decline, exacerbated by war damage and manpower losses, culminating in the Beeching cuts of the 1960s. 

 

World War One was supposed to be the ‘war to end all wars’, and the League of Nations was set up to prevent such a major conflict ever happening again.  Hence Britain felt it could once more rely on imported food   The UK government even felt it could afford to reduce imports of food from places such as Denmark, Argentina, and Russia, in preference for food from the Colonial Empire, and the Old Colonies of the USA and Canada..  The TUC opposed this move, fearing it would mean higher food prices than was necessary for the working family; an echo of the Corn Laws of a century earlier.  Innovations such as frozen food, freezer ships to bring meat from the furthest parts of the world to Europe, all helped boost the efficiency of the food supply chain, reduce food wastage through food spoilage, and boost the total population of Europe and the world that could be fed by the agricultural sector. 

 

World War Two, with a more efficient German blockade against food imports to Britain, showed that the era of wars had not come to an end and that Britain was vulnerable to siege just as much as the mediaeval castles had been of centuries earlier.  Rationing saw the country through, as did a ‘dig for victory’ campaign, involving home production of food wherever it could be grown, from back gardens and parks to sports fields and the open grasslands of the Downs.  Much unimproved grassland was ploughed up, and an era of subsidies to farms began., Farmers were incentivised by government grants to introduce technology, raise food production, and raise yields by grubbing up less productive land taken up by hedges and meadows and growing crops.  Technology ruled the day, as fertilisers from oil came on stream, farm machinery such as tractors and balers developed, and intensive rearing of farm animals in indoor barns, battery chickens and cows, began. 

 

Post-War Europe

 

After this second World War less than thirty years after the supposed ‘war to end all wars’, a major effort was made by the USA and by Europe itself, to prevent a third such War.  The USA oversaw the pulling together of western Europe into what is now the European Union (EU).  Meanwhile the Soviet Union pulled its (eastern) half of the continent into a buffer zone against another invasion from the west, this zone being known as the Warsaw Pact countries.  The European Economic Community, or EEC as it was then known before it evolved into the EU, boosted agriculture by subsidies to farmers.  The aim was to help impoverished rural areas, to feed an industrialised continent whose riches farmlands lay beyond the Iron Curtain in the Warsaw Pact, and to preserve the countryside as a food production and recreation facility.  The EEC did finally bring a long period of peace to western Europe, and the prosperity that brought enable Europeans to catch up with Americans on material goods.  Europeans began to travel abroad, and to demand new exotic foreign foods.  Increased spending power in the UK and the rest of Europe facilitated the growth of supermarkets dependent on car access and bulk buying, and the sales of value added foods and luxury goods, not just necessities.

 

In the 1950s fish and chips was still the UK’s favourite dish but meals such as spaghetti Bolognese from Italy and Paella from Spain were becoming more common, tastes brought to the UK by holidaymakers to the ‘sun, sea, and sand’ destinations of the Mediterranean.  Findus and Birds Eye were delivering frozen foods to UK shops.  These meals had been on sale in the USA before the Second World War but as with many retailing innovations (e.g. self service, supermarkets) their arrival in the UK was delayed by the less developed state of the UK economy compared to the USA’s.  Food rationing in the UK persisted until the 1950s.  In the 1960s meat and sugar consumption in the UK rose sharply, after years of rationing, as the economy began to recover.

 

Technology and social change from the 1960s onwards

 

The 1960s and 70s were an age of techno-optimism compared to the early 21st century where technology in the area of food is generally distrusted, e.g. GM foods, artificial flavourings and colourings.  This was the age of Smash powdered mashed potatoes, advertised by smiley robot aliens who laughed at primitive Earthlings who still peeled potatoes.  The advertisement for this ran in 1973.  Boil in the bag fish also arrived at this time.  Cookery programmes on TV became popular, and UK tastes became more international, demanding pizzas, pasta, German meats and yoghurts, French cheeses, and American ice cream.

 

The 1980s saw more working mothers. Households where both parents worked became more common, and also single parent households.  Social mobility and a looser code of morals had increased the divorce rate.  The 1980s saw rise in house prices, necessitating a double income for many households in order to be able to afford to buy a house.  Women became keener on entering the workforce and achieving equality with men, a process that was started by the shortage eon manpower in the two World Wars, so women had to go to work on the Home Front to replace the men away fighting. 

 

This promoted a trend towards fast food and ready meals, and  cooking skills declined, as cook-chill technology improved and the range of ready-meals widened.  By 1999 the average time spent preparing a meal had fallen to 20 minutes, from 60 minutes in 1980, as we increasingly bought ready meals from supermarkets. By now food tastes had expanded widely beyond Europe, to Indian, Chinese, and even Thai foods.  This cosmopolitanisation of the nation’s palate was driven by more exotic foreign holidays as well as increasing immigration of ethnic minorities to the UK.  In the 1990s, less than half of cook-chill recipes were British; over half were Indian or Chinese.

 

Demographic changes in the UK in the 21st century

 

The UK has seen major demographic changes since 2000 which have impacted on the food industry.  The demand for healthy yet fast convenience microwave food has continued as work hours and a demand for leisure or ‘me time’ have eroded willingness to cook.  The EU has expanded to cover 10 new countries in 2004, 8 of these former Warsaw Pact countries such as Poland and Hungary.  Two further former Soviet Bloc countries, Romania and Bulgaria, joined in 2007.  This expansion was made possible by the collapse of Communism in Russia and eastern Europe from 1989 onwards; a collapse which increased political instability in the Middle East and other regions.  This has increased the flow of migrants to the UK and other western EU countries, increasing the diversity of both food retail outlets and food demand within the UK.

 

The credit crunch, 2007 onwards

 

Reduction of consumer spending

 

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