Category Archives: localisation

Barcelona sets limits on new hotel rooms

Since the moratorium on new hotels passed by the Ajuntament de Barcelona (The Barcelona City Council) in June last year, the local government headed by Ada Colau has been working on a plan to find a balance between the demands of the tourist and the demands of the local.

This was always going to be an impossible task. On one hand, you have a multi million euro industry – which contributes 12% of Catalan GDP – and on the other hand, some very, very noisy locals, and trust me, Catalans can be particularly noisy.

The results are out and the locals are reacting

Announced in March The Special Urban Plan for Tourist Accommodation (PEUAT) “promotes a sustainable urban model to make tourism compatible with residents’ basic rights” and it has without doubt curtailed the tourist sector in Barcelona, as the number of new beds allowed will fall way short of demand.

The headline figure from the PEUAT is that a maximum of 12,000 more hotel beds across the whole city will be allowed over the next six years. The 12,000 figure is still, of course, a substantial number of new beds in what is a relatively small major city, but overall the barrios, the local areas, will see the stymying of many planned hotels as a victory. However, for some, it is a small victory.

Twelve thousand new beds would still mean approximately 8% rise in the number of beds available in the city. And for many locals, the city already has too many tourists.

Does Barcelona have too many tourists?
I didn’t think they needed to change if from “Space Invaders”

As Barcelona sets limits on new hotel rooms, hotels struggle to keep on top of current demand

Following a detailed census, we now know that Barcelona currently has around 130,000 beds in hotels, apartments, hostels and pensions. Following bumper visitor figures for each month this year, we know that occasionally those beds just aren’t enough. This was clearly demonstrated by Mobile World Congress, which takes place in Barcelona each Febraury, with the event maxing out the hotels in Barcelona this year. That event is set to grow every year (it will be in Barcelona to at least 2023), so you have to wonder, will 12,000 new beds even just keep up with that event?

As well as demands from the “right kind of tourists” (the ones that attend Mobile World Congress, rather than the partying tourists) there is substantial pressure from the “wrong” type of  tourists.

The number of expected tourists is likely to pass the 8m mark in 2016, with demand continuing to grow year on year. Adding 12,000 new beds in Europe’s third most visited city will do little to match demand.

So if 12,000 new beds will do little to appease the tourism industry, how will this number affect those locals? Well, it depends where you are local to.

Where will the 12,000 new tourists go?

The regulations and restrictions laid out in the PEUAT are different for each area, with the tourist sector in the centre of Barcelona facing the greatest restrictions (detailed zone by zone can be found here). In summary, the legislation will be more relaxed the further away from the centre you go. Sectioning the plan into zones will push tourists further from the old parts of the city. However, those 12,000 beds need to go somewhere and certain barrios have the potential to go the way of Barceloneta – the once quaint fishing port now transformed into Barcelona’s very own little costa. 

Poble Nou, the barrio where I live, sits in the zone known as 22@ and will be greatly affected by the PEUAT. As you can see from the image at the top of the page, the locals are not happy, and quite rightly so.

As detailed by the citywide plan, over the next six years there could be 3,200 new hotel beds in 22@, with the majority in, or at least very close to the most popular barrio Poble Nou. On those numbers alone, you can take pity with the locals who think they are being “invaded”.

As Ada Colau was keen to stress the plan seeks “to preserve the rights of residents to housing, rest and privacy” but for those in and around 22@ the idea that 3,200 more tourists would preserve their rights seems as unlikely as they are to accept the plan in its current form.

Balancing Tourism in Barcelona

In Barcelona the walls very often come to life: “this community is not for sale” reads the statement painted on a new hostel development in Poblenou. The city’s citizens are hostile.

If you’d just been reading the business headlines you certainly wouldn’t think this was the case. The tourist industry in Barcelona would succinctly sum up by saying “we’ve never had it so good” That industry is of course made up of thousands of individual bars, hotels, nightclubs and restaurants. And within these establishments there are doormen, chefs, cleaners and managers, and every one of them would lift a glass in celebration: Salud! Las turistas!

The impact of a successful industry ripples prosperity across the community that supports it. For Spain, Catalunya, and Barcelona in particular, tourism is a super successful, money making enterprise.

The importance of tourism to Catalunya

The entire tourism industry generates 12% of Catalunya’s GDP (to give you some comparison, tourism is only 5% of Scottish GDP) Tourism is widely credited with cushioning Barcelona from the recent global financial crisis. Some 120,000 jobs in the Catalan capital are fuelled by tourists.

From a purely commercial perspective the strength of this sector is  regarded as an unmitigated success. That view would see Barcelona proudly placed in an enviable position, looking down on other tourist hungry cities. However, scratch the surface and you will find that many of the capital’s Catalans abhor the wider negative impact of tourism; for them, they have never had it so bad. And it is only set to get worse.

In 2016, with many tourists fearing terrorism, should they venture from continental Europe, Spain, Catalunya and Barcelona will welcome more tourists than ever. Actually, as I am finding out, walking the streets and talking to locals, “welcome” is definitely not the correct word.

So when did the love affair with tourists end?

Spain has always found it difficult to find a balance between welcoming tourist money and cowering from their habits. Under Franco in 1959 the greatest of all compromises came in the two cupped shape of the bikini. As the ultra Conservative government scrambled to find a solution to topless, sunbathing foreigners, a thin strip of material allowed seaside Spain to reap the rewards from Tourism, while the Spanish state maintained its decency.

Throughout the following years Barcelona locals have seen, at an increasing rate, areas of their city taken over by tourists and tourist hungry businesses. It started with Las Ramblas, one of the city’s most important historical centres. The street that had seen pitched battles between rival factions in the Spanish civil war has lost the battle with tourists.

Tourist traps gradually spread out across the Barrio Gótico and Ciutat Vella – the two oldest parts of the city – then increasingly touched areas further from the city centre, all but consuming the tiny ex fishing community of Barceloneta. All to the chargin of locals.

The idea that the “success” of Barcelona as a tourist destination was anything but a blessing appeared on the horizon for many foreigners for the first time in 2014. Coverage of the “anti tourist” documentary Bye, Bye Barcelona hinted at the negative impacts of this massive trade. In a rather one sided take of the complex issues at play Bye, Bye Barcelona was never going to be able to cover the difficult balance that the citizens and especially the city’s legislators now face.

A less than quiet revolution

Take a walk through any of the large barrios in Barcelona and within ten minutes or so you will more than likely come across something that more than hints at the local dislike and distrust of this increase in tourism. It may be a homemade banner in Barceloneta that reads, in English, “Tourists Go Home”, or a recent magazine article posted to a pillar in Poblenou. The noise is constant and growing.

Poblenou a worrying and major focus for low cost tourism
Poblenou is fast becoming a new major focus for low cost tourism. And its residents are not happy

To understand why the volume has been turned up to 11, you just need to look at the numbers. Barcelona (pop. 1,604,555) is now the third most visited city in Europe, behind London (pop. 8,539,000) and Paris (pop. 2,249,975). A record 8 million people are expected to visit Barcelona this year. With roughly 5 tourists for every 1 resident it is hard to argue that Barcelona may on several levels struggle.

It is not tourists per say, but the rate of the increase where the real issue lies. In the last twenty years the city has seen tourist numbers quadruple and many believe that the city and especially the locals can no longer cope. The complaints fall broadly into three categories:

  1. Barcelona is attracting the “wrong type” of tourists
  2. Accommodating tourists is pushing residents from their homes, and businesses from the high street and
  3. The identity and cultural heritage of the city (and the wider region) is disappearing

With these three areas in mind Ada Colau, the charismatic new Mayor, has a plan to re-balance the tourism sector’s interests more in line with local residents.

The wrong type of tourists

“Low cost” tourism is a particular pain to the Catalans. The Barcelona authorities are at pains to suggest that there is no “drunken tourism” in Barcelona and have for several years taken steps to ban pub crawls and booze cruises. However a short walk on any summer night through El Born, or down Passeig de Joan de Borbó, across Gràcia, El Raval or Eixample will bring to life the issues. Tourists are literally reveling in low cost accommodation, food and entertainment in Barcelona.

Poblenou during Carnaval
Poblenou during Carnaval

There are of course “desirable” tourists and even the left wing Mayor is keen to point that out, for example the 80,000 extra visitors heading to Barcelona at the end of February for Mobile World Congress are this town’s type of tourist.

The Mayor’s support for this event proves that she is trying to find a balance. Mobile World Congress provides a multi million euro injection every year into the Catalan economy and Barcelona’s new Mayor has offered to support the organisation in the city beyond the current agreement, with Barcelona continuing to host the event until at least 2023. Tourism is crucial to the success of this thriving city and it has the Mayor’s support. 

Accommodating the tourist market

Following on from her predecessor, Ada Colau’s administration took two brave steps to redress the balance in accommodating locals and tourists. One of her first decrees, introduced in July, was a one-year moratorium on new tourist accommodation. The move is “provisional and precautionary” said Colau in an interview with Catalunya Ràdio. “Tourism is an asset that the city needs to take care of and make more sustainable, because it created tensions”. As a former anti eviction campaigner Ada Colau knows all about dealing with tensions.

The decree affected eight of the eleven new luxury projects in Barcelona, stymying thirty hotels in total but it is not just hotel chains which are under the spotlight, those offering their homes (or in some cases – their rental investments) for short term rents are under the spotlight too. Airbnb has not had an easy ride in this city.

Airbnb and similar platforms pose a direct and measurable threat to affordable housing. In many popular areas rents are increasing quickly, pushed ever higher by speculative properly purchases.

In Catalunya all establishments used by tourists must be registered with the City Council or the Catalan Government and a tiny tourist tax of 0.65€ is due in Barcelona. The Generalitat has already taken direct measures to slow the flow of properties going online by imposing the first €60,000 fines on AirBnB in January. The Generalitat opted to fine the site, rather than the individual owners, for the unregistered short term lets appearing on rental sites.

The Barrio in which I have chosen to make my home Poblenou is particularly affected. Sitting in the larger district of Sant Martí, between 2012 and 2014 almost 900 homes with the official “Los apartamentos de uso turístico (HUT)” have been listed, however the actual number available and openly advertised is likely to stretch into the couple of thousand.

The identity and cultural heritage of the city is disappearing

Two of Barcelona’s most famous “attractions” have started to limit access to tourists. Groups of tourists are now strongly discouraged in La Boquería the largest market in Barcelona, with security guards expected to operate over the busier months this year. Parc Güell, which was originally built by Gaudí and opened as a public park in 1926, now sets a limit each day on the number of available tourist places to visit the park. The locals are making their move and they now have a very supportive Mayor and regional Government.

Spend any significant amount of time in Catalunya and you will find that Catalans are exceptionally proud of their heritage and culture. This cultural defense has spread from Barcelona. At the end of last year as part of the deal to invest a new Catalan President, the political party CUP called for the abandonment of BCN World, a huge 800 hectare project that would have seen a competitor to EuroDisney in Catalunya.

Millions of Euros would have been spent in the region and in fact the inflow of money was one of the reasons for a popular party not to support the development. The quiet decision to mothball BCN World was made with the knowledge that in Spain, when such large sums of money flow, corruption comes along for the ride.

The message is clear from local resident groups to the Generalitat. Las Ramblas can’t house more tourist tat. Poblenou can’t have any more hotels and Catalunya is not the home for a super casino and an extended theme park: enough is enough. There is a balance to be found, and many in Catalunya believe the scales have tipped too far in favour of the tourists. 2016 is still to redress the balance.

The good bank

With the longest election campaign in living memory now drawing to a close the bizarre theatre of facts and figures, claim and counter claim has had time to cover every single major issue facing the electorate. Scotland. Housing. The economy. The debt and the deficit. Immigration. Zero hour contracts. Scotland again. Coalitions. The likelihood and legitimacy of those coalitions. Trident. The NHS. Taxes and the avoidance of those taxes.  And a little bit more about Scotland. But there is an important issue that has been as hard to find as an impromptu walk about by a Tory Minister.  Remember those banks and the financial services sector and the mess they caused? Whatever happened to all that?

Scrutinising the role of the financial services became a media and public pastime after the the sector was bailed out by the grand total of £375Billion. Since the financial crisis took hold in 2008 and during every ‘banker bonus’ time since we’ve learned to look at banking through a squinting eye as we wondered just when are we getting our money back? So considering debt and the deficit have been ubiquitous in this campaign it seems to be amiss not to focus on the continuing role of the financial services sector and to ask:

– what has happened to make sure that there isn’t another financial services led crash again? and

– can our banks, if run differently, actually do some good?

What have the political parties been saying in this campaign about the financial sector?

The Tory Manifesto mentions, what has to be seen as an admission:

“our economic growth remains uneven, too reliant on financial services.”

They then cover exactly how the role of the Financial Conduct Authority and the Bank of England will oversee the “best regulation in the world” Careful wording; not the most regulated but the “best”. The Tories talk about how their reforms covered in the Financial Services (Banking Reform Act 2013) – which will come into play in 2019 now that’s a long time in anyone’s book – will continue to strengthen the sector against future market failures.

Whatever you think of the scope of that regulation at least it is mentioned by the Tories but this seems to be the end of the reform. And to prove their lack of vision here’s the coalition government’s pre campaign announcement. Their paper “protocol for bank closures” does absolutely nothing to improve the regional support for SMEs and those consumers who most value a local bank in fact it’s not even on the agenda: “High street banks, consumer groups and the government have signed up to an industry-wide agreement to minimise the impact of branch closures” Yes, you read that correctly. Rather than looking at banks to support the regional development of the UK to how about just limit the negative impact? why set the bar high when it can be set so low?

Back to manifestos. In the Labour Manifesto there is a mention of a new way of banking and a brand new bank:

“We will develop a banking system that works for businesses in every region and every sector in Britain. The long-standing problems of our banking system mean that too many small and medium-sized businesses cannot get the finance they need to invest and grow.

Labour will establish a British Investment Bank with the mission to help businesses grow and to create wealth and jobs. It will have the resources to improve access to finance for small and medium-sized businesses, and will support a network of regional banks.”

Now this sounds good. Like someone is listening to the SME sector and a disenfranchised public. And there is a consensus that seems to be shared by the SNP and the Greens.

The SNP in their manifesto seek to hit the banks hard with an increased bank levy and a tax on banker’s bonuses. But the area of a new bank is the  most interesting part:

“….will seek seed-fund capitalisation of the Scottish Business Development Bank, enabling new investment in Scottish business growth and innovation, helping create thousands of new jobs”

The Green Party dedicate a couple of pages on reforming the Financial Sector in their manifesto. They typically peg their colours to the mast:

“The UK finance industry is a disaster area.”

And within the fruity language we again find the new (well a very old) bank:

“We will use the government-owned Royal Bank of Scotland to create a network of local banks for every city and region, ensuring that each bank is a People’s Bank, obliged to offer cheap basic banking services.”

Now this looks good a People’s Bank. A bank designed to do good?

In a variety of routes Labour, SNP and The Greens all seem to want to start to develop a new way to do banking. The route and the scope appears to differ but this overall vision has the potential to make an impact that will be felt across communities and in the wider economy and it is a shame there has been so little focus on this vision. A new approach to banking in the UK has the opportunity to affect real and meaningful economic and social change. And it is needed.

So far under the coalition government nothing much seems to have changed even in the banks that we own. As you can see from the Tory led coalition government their protocol for bank closures and their reliance on past regulation shows that the ship has sailed on more regulations. But maybe they are right, maybe we don’t need more regulation. So exactly how are things going?

RBS announced its latest figures at the end of April. A £446m loss in the year so far. According to RBS CEO Ross McEwan the bank is improving and if only they didn’t have to set aside millions of pounds to cover their potential loss owing to alleged criminal activity they would be in profit. Damn those illegal activities they can really hurt…..shareholders.

So if it’s not going so well and the opposition parties are looking at a new direction of travel is there anyone there to put meat on the bones? Thankfully there are other organisations talking about reform in the banking sector.

Local banking for the public good

At start of the election campaign the excellent Think Tank the New Economics Forum published a report entitled: “Reforming RBS: local banking for the public good”

In this detailed and explorative report the NEF pictured and supported a revisioning of RBS. A not for profit regional based financing network that focused on SMEs. In the many highlights a reformed RBS would lead to:

1. Increasing credit for the real economy. Local stakeholder banking networks focus more on small and medium enterprise (SME) lending and they increased lending to businesses and households during the recession while large commercial banks withdrew credit from the economy.

2. Protecting jobs and growing their number and quality. Investment in higher staff-to-customer ratios by local stakeholder banks with consequent tax revenues, saved welfare, and benefit costs and social benefits.

3. Improving the diversity and resilience of the UK banking system. Offering greater protection to the economy against future economic shocks. Which is  of particular interest to Scotland with %…..

4. Promoting financial inclusion through access to a current account for all UK citizens, and maintenance of universal branch coverage across the UK.

5. Rebalancing the economy. Increasing investment and economic development in regions outside London, as well as greater financial support for local social, cultural, and sporting activities.

As well as all of the above the NEF suggests that RBS would add between £8billion and £13billion to GDP over the first three years acting as a good bank. The policy could almost single handily reduce that scary £30billion cuts figure that has dominated the campaign. Not only is this a vision but it is a practical solution that adds more good than simply increasing GDP.

Reading between the lines of the red lines there are many issues where Labour can lead a progressive anti Tory alliance. The reform of our financial services starting with a look at the role of RBS could be a way in which a successful working government redraws the lines of banks, challenges them to become part of the community and to serve those communities, not to serve shareholders.

For a bank it shouldn’t be about profit. It should be about doing good. Banks shouldn’t be there to make money for their investors; they should be there to support businesses and consumers to better their lives. Wouldn’t it be great if banks measured themselves on this rather than on the bottom line? What if they could actually do good. What if you wanted to hug a banker rather than bash him?

TTIP a treaty too far

“Driving political consensus for TTIP on both sides of the Atlantic” reads the CBI’s press release and worryingly the CBI’s John Cridland seems rather upbeat. His enthusiasm is great news for many of the directors of CBI’s members. It’s not such glad tidings for the groups mentioned in the press release; small businesses and consumers. His chipperness is no good thing for the people not mentioned; the average employee of those large CBI member businesses or me and you.

George Monbiot has been campaigning and covering the TTIP treaty for more than a year. Visiting his blog will give you your fill of information on the treaty as well as fill you with dread. TTIP is the most worrying proposal to increase corporate power ever to be  negotiated at a interstate level. Should it be passed it will place large corporations within a legal framework that would sit above even nation states.

Kudos to the CBI as a lobbying group

The CBI unashamedly represents big business and obviously does it very well judging by whom the CBI have been meeting with:

“From a US investment summit, meeting with senior US government officials at the White House, through to a Congressional roundtable with US Ambassador to the UK, Matthew Barzun………….This is the same message I delivered on this side of the Atlantic just before Christmas at our roundtable event where we were joined by 7 EU Prime Ministers!”

Jolly smashing, if you are in favour of the benefits to corporations, but who else is in those meetings? Who is there representing you and I as consumers? Or me and you as the average worker?

If we are in any way represented in these discussions it is by a politician – who will likely be bank rolled through campaign donations by some of the CBI’s members: he will know which side his bread is buttered. As the discussions progress (similar to the initial drafting) it is being carried out by exceptionally well paid corporate lawyers with little input from consumer groups or trade unions.  It is to no ones surprise that the treaty will reflect the wishes and avarice desires of those who are scribing.

“Five top reasons to support TTIP”

The CBI’s press release focuses on five top reasons to support TTIP and they all deserve to be scrutinised:

Reason one. The biggest reason is that: “small and mid-sized companies stand to benefit the most” This is totally unfounded. Trade agreements work on economise of scale. The larger countries do well and the smaller ones do badly. And within those countries the same applies to companies and regions.

I’d ask the CBI where the evidence is for this statement? As it is the biggest benefit you would expect it to be backed up by a lot of evidence so just one slice of proof would be good.

Also within the release you will find this statement: “For every customer in the UK, there will be five more in the US to sell to” Just because there are more customers in the US doesn’t mean UK companies will sell to them: there is no correlation here. John Cridland draws a tangental relationship were none exists.

In reality the majority of small and medium sized businesses will be fighting to keep a hold of their current customers. “Reason one” says nothing about the competition from the US and it should as the essence of this treaty is to limit competition not to expand it. The idea is to further open up national markets to allow large national and international businesses to take profit and market share away from small and medium sized local and national companies. Just imagine any small business you can think of going head to head with a billion dollar US conglomerate? Really is allowing multi nationals to further access the SME market going to be good for those same businesses?

Second: “TTIP will mean more choice along with lower prices for consumers”. As I’ve outlined above it will actually mean less choice. Possibly there may be more competition in the short term until multinational companies take over and limit your choices.

In the second part of this statement the CBI look to represent the interests of “consumers”. We can of course discount this simply by reading about whom the CBI represent. They don’t and can’t speak for consumers. But to give them the benefit of the doubt we can still at least question the evidence:

– How do they know that any savings will be passed on to consumers and not investors? Why should we believe that savings simply won’t generate greater profits for investors like they always have? Companies aren’t designed to reduce prices only to increase profits.

Third is that “duplicate regulation and excessive paperwork at customs” will disappear. Well, I kind of like regulation and I’d personally like to see more regulation of many more industries and better regulation of those currently regulated, like say the Banking sector. No one likes form filling for the sake of it but really if this is one of the five biggest reasons to support a treaty we are already operating on pretty thin ice.

“Fourthly, it will play to the UK’s strengths grabbing a bigger footprint for our world-leading services.” Here the CBI are spot on. For the UK’s large multinationals this treaty will help them increase returns to their investors. If this is a main goal for the treaty – which of course it is – then we are finally getting into who the treaty will really benefit.

“number five, creates jobs at home” The CBI state that a new treaty will create more jobs because there are already 1 million people working in the UK for American companies. So let’s analyse that, as it may very well be the case:

As these American corporations start soaking up business from smaller national companies of course they are going to need staff.

– The questions is will they hire more employees than those companies who shed workers?

Well that’s unlikely. Larger organisations spend less as a percentage on wages than smaller businesses and they tend to have less staff. So in fact it will cost jobs.

– And what about these new jobs?

You can expect wages to fall and conditions to worsen as multi nationals do what they are designed to do and suck as much revenue from maximising market share to generate profits for investors.

The final aspect of any job transfer (because this is the best case scenario) is the wholly negative impact on the diversity and strength of regions of the UK including of course Scotland. As most corporations, both British and British based America corporations are located in the south east of England – centring around London of course – these jobs would further inflate the London bubble while draining skills and resources from the rest of the UK. There is of course no mention of this in the CBI’s article. And I wonder what its powerful regional members think of this omission?

– And what about the profits that are being generated, who sees the benefit of those?

For every £1 spent with a local company 63p stays in that community.  For a larger business it is as low as 40p. Profits leave poorer regions of the UK and end up in the deep pockets of American and international investors.

What’s missing

Of course the crux of the release is what is not mentioned. There is no note of the negative impact on wages. “creating jobs” is a well known code word for “profits”. These is no note of how good quality, well paid jobs will be protected. Surely this should be at the heart of the negotiation terms for an organisation representing those in business?

This press release and of course the wider treaty do nothing to highlight or address the largest issue that the UK and the USA face together: the continual rise of inequality. It would be great to see TTIP have even the slightest positive impact on reducing the run away train that is the disparity of earnings. But it is not even on the fringes of the negotiations.

There we go, blaming Thatcher again

Since the modern version of “globalisation” which started in the Reagan and Thatcher era, corporate profits in the UK have soared at a factor of 5 to 1 to wages. TTIP, by acting on behalf of multinationals and their investors, will see this difference increase. Inequality will rise and the share of the benefits for those who actually do the work will continue to fall.  

Make no mistake these globalisation treaties do exactly what they are designed to do: to increase returns for those who do not work for the organisations whose interest they serve: save the senior management at these companies. Rather than dress up the treaty by mentioning “consumers” and “jobs” the CBI should have the courage to tell its members exactly what and for whom it is championing, not disguise it in poorly structured, baseless press releases.

No State or 51st State – Catalunya or UK?

It was with heavy hearts and heavier suitcases that my girlfriend and I left Barcelona at the end of November.  Almost all of our possessions had been picked up weeks before but with the sheer amount of Jamón, Padrons and Manchego we were carrying the seams of our bags were straining.

Hasta luego Barcelona. In the last week we said our goodbyes to the things we will miss the most. To the beach calmly emptying the final tourists during the dying days of autumn. To strong coffee in small cups. To Tapas. To Vermut. To the sound of agreement being echoed again, and again, and again as Catalan Gentleman nod and say “vale, vale, vale, vale, vale, vale” almost endlessly. Barcelona is a wonderful city full or wonderful people.

IMG_1151

Moving back to Northern Britain – the 51st State

We returned to Edinburgh a day after that recent US import Black Friday. Celebrating with a consumerist splurge the end of a celebration (Thanks Giving) that you don’t actually celebrate has to be one of the strangest diseases that the UK has caught in a while. America has been sneezing at this time of year since the 1960s but only now, powered by the internet and our avariciousness, have we contracted the bug. To witness it – thankfully just on TV – was ghastly. Here’s Buzzfeed’s summary.

We spent “Black Friday” (actually is was just a bit grey) in Barcelona walking round the local market. This is what Black Friday meant to us and it would seem hundreds of others who did their shopping that day.

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Black Friday Catalunya

Every year in the lead up to Christmas food collections spring up next to every single type of food shop. Market stalls, smaller independent stores and the larger super markets all get involved. Large boxes on creates are placed next to or inside stores and quickly fill with beans, pasta, rice, UHT, biscuits and tins of seafood. We decided to donate a few bags of food; pondering over the best items as we weighed up longevity with variety.

During the 20mins or so of our deliberations I’d say that 90% of shoppers donated at least one item. But that’s no surprise as I’ve come to learn the Catalans are a very socially engaged and spirited lot. This food collection tradition is much older than the Black Friday Sales.

So you can imagine what it felt like to return to the UK and witness how Black Friday had been spent here. “The American state across the pond” is a soubriquet that I simply detest to see my country – Scotland – living up to. One of my great hopes for an independent Scotland is that we would cast off two sets of cultural shackles as we split from Westminster’s cultural direction and the UK’s desire to live the life of Americans. No thanks man! Is what I say.

One of the glories of Catalunya and of Barcelona is that the region has this heart shaped by local communities and a local agenda that pumps with pride. It starts in the family, through the barrios, cities and finally at the borders of the region. It may not be a “State” but at least it is not the 51st State.

The power of localisation

Chatting with a shop owner about the local brewery is a pretty universal conversation. “Muy fuerte” says the proprietor as he points to his favourite Pale Ale: “Very strong” he says and smiles. This guy knows I am Scottish.

From my Barcelona apartment I can peer into this politicised state and observe the political situation around the Catalan referendum and luckily I can do that while drinking locally brewed Pale Ale.

I’ve been here on and off for two years and the barriers that any land has to a foreigner are beginning to fall. The hidden meanings behind phrases – like “quatro gatos” “four cats” – meaning there’s nobody here; the closeness of families and the bizarre breads are all beginning to make sense. However in the way that strong ale loosens the tongue I don’t totally understand things but I can have a stab at them.

With the mist cleaning I see many similarities and many differences between Catalunya’s search for proper and meaningful representation and the similar struggle taking place in Scotland.

With this in mind I’d like Scotland and Scots to get to know Catalunya that bit better. I’d like them to take a virtual walk down the Ramblas which criss-cross the city. Come and see a human tower being built. Join a political demonstration that sucks 100,000 people on to the street. Follow “Gigantes” down the street. Wave their flags, buy the t-shirt and read the books. And above all strive for some of the wonderful things that Catalunya takes for granted.

One of the differences between Scotland and Catalunya is how and where people shop. Now this may appear insignificant at first but I believe it goes to the heart of why many people backed the Yes campaign: an anti-establishment agenda focusing on localisation as the answer to more commerce and more jobs.

Cakes and Bread. And strong coffee.
Cakes and Bread. And strong coffee.

To sum up the differences between Catalunya and Scotland all you need to do is to take a walk down any medium sized street. Let’s pick the metro station of Clot. Think of it as Charing Cross in Glasgow or Haymarket in Edinburgh. It’s just outside of the city centre and is a busy hub for the local community.

Head up the main shopping drag and within one block you will find 30 shops. On this street it’s €1.50 for a coffee and 10c more buys a bottle of Estrella. Within this compact retail space there are six places you can buy fresh bread. There are three bars all serving food cooked fresh on the premises and one restaurant. In seven places in total you can buy that €1.60 beer.

A local bar on Carrer Rogent
A local bar on Carrer Rogent

The other twenty or so shops range from shoe shops to printers, from ice cream shops to a gym. Many of these types of shops would be seen on a UK high street (well maybe not the ice cream shop) but there the similarities end. On Carrer Rogent the main Ramble in Clot there are only five chain stores. There’s a coffee shop called Caracas, a Ham place called Enrique Tomas, Monopa the baker and a kind of pre packed take away meal store called Nostrum. One international store has a pitch: on the corner there is an Orange store. This is of course a striking difference to a UK high street. Twenty of the stores are owned by the people who run them meaning that the money spent in these shops stays in Catalunya.

Many of the stores highlight the importance and position of local produce. After browsing a wine store and seeing nothing but wines from the tempranillo grape I asked the wine store owner “Is all the wine from Spain?”, “NO. It’s all from Catalunya”: now that is localisation in action. Stores in Catalunya are different from stores in the rest of Spain. In this sense I wonder how Scotland truly differentiates itself from the rest of the UK? Because it should. And it can.

An independent card and art store.
An independent card and art store.

In the UK a staggering 97% of groceries are purchased from a supermarket. In Catalunya my guess would be that figure would be less than 30%. There are no major players anywhere near the size of the big four in the UK and the majority of streets are supermarket free – and it’s bliss!

In their place local markets appear weekly and are a genuine source of affordable produce rather than simply a site for tourists or the domain of the middle class. The markets are super markets in the sense that they are real markets that are super. A fresh source of fish, meat, fruit, nuts, beans and all manor of things is supplied by scores of owners instead of one. And the food is cheap.

Honey from the local market that occasionally pops up at the end of the street.
Honey from the local market that occasionally pops up at the end of the street.

Supermarkets are the most visible of conglomerates as they are on, literally, every high street. They operate solely for profit, paying little attention to their impact in the community. They have to deliver shareholder value and that comes at the expense of suppliers and staff. Sure they have low prices but they are shy on quality and variety. Money from the community flows in to these shops because their aggressive practices have made high street shopping unaffordable. And it has all been backed by complicit Governments in Westminster and Holyrood. Money flows out of communities to shareholders. Stores close. Decent paying jobs in small stores are exchanged for low paying zero hour contracts in supermarkets. Everyone loses. Apart from senior executives and shareholders obviously.

Many within the Yes campaign in Scotland had a focus on a localised approach to commerce as a way to increase inward investment and boost the local job market. An anti-establishment mantra has to include suspicion and disdain of corporations of all sizes – and supermarkets are front and centre – from their little Corner Metro Stores to their out of town Hyper Markets.

One of the themes in this blog is how we can get active despite a no vote. One way to do that is to support local suppliers and stores. Avoid Tesco, Asda, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s if you can! Buy local produce. Buy Scottish. The power for change lies at the front door and in the wallet of every single person. It’s the decision to walk past the supermarket and go local. Exercising that power, like the Catalans do, by pushing for a localised agenda can have a positive impact in your community that maybe even a Yes vote couldn’t have delivered.