The latest push to revitalise local shopping services has been accused of focusing exclusively on commercial issues, writes Alison Forbes

Imagine a display of bright green apples, gleaming oranges and full florets of broccoli, laid out seductively on pink tissue paper a stones throw from home in a local shop.

A creche is next door, the post office is down the road, and yells of delight can be heard from the nearby school playground.

This is the governments vision of urban shopping for the future. The local shop, it says, will generate a sense of belonging and make people feel part of their community.

Thriving, vibrant shops will provide opportunities for better education, skills and training for local people, better employment opportunities, crime reduction and improvement in health.

Policy action team 13 at the governments social exclusion unit - dubbed PAT13 - lys out, with backing from the Department of Health, to find ways to improve shopping access for people living in deprived neighbourhoods.

Consultation on its document Improving Shopping Access for People in Deprived Neighbourhoods closed on Friday. A final version will contribute to the governments national strategy for neighbourhood renewal.

The team found a 40 per cent drop in the number of independent stores between 1986 and 1997, with factors including problems with crime, over - pricing, poor produce and competition from larger stores.

PAT13s goal was to support retail opportunities which provide a range of quality goods at affordable prices, respond to local needs and of fer facilities which are vibrant, viable and sustainable .

It identified five major issues: crime reduction, proactive planning, improving business support for small retailers, easing their business burdens and developing local retail strategies.

So is the vibrant local shop a pipedream? And if not, will it actually improve peoples health?

Dr Kate Ardern, consultant in public health at Liverpool health authority, believes access to shops is only part of the solution. She emphasises the need for a holistic approach, to link food production with retail outlets.

We should encourage locally grown food and projects like farmers markets, which bring food production close to consumers, she says.

Employment opportunities in food production can be used to develop skills which benefit the community.

Its also crucial to change peoples attitudes to food and their eating habits. Corner-shops are lovely, but they are no good if people dont know how to cook. We need to link up with schemes in schools and colleges to increase peoples confidence.

And in Dr Arderns view, the report fails to deal properly with transport. It still does not address the issue of the mum on a council estate who buys crisps and biscuits rather than oranges for her kids because they are lighter to carry.

Paul Timblick, senior policy and research officer in the housing department at east Londons Hackney council, agrees. People on estates in Hackney cannot get to decent shops because of the transport system. This issue still needs to be addressed.

Eileen Rubery, chair of PAT13, takes this on board. This is precisely why all the key stakeholders - shopkeepers, local people, planning authorities - must work together to develop the local retail strategy and take ownership of it to come up with a transport solution that genuinely suits local needs.

Jackie Frize, food access worker for East London health action zone, is unhappy about the reports emphasis on commercial enterprise.

It focuses very much on improving peoples business skills. But not everyone wants to run their own business.

There are many examples around the country of smaller schemes such as food co-ops and community cafes which have proved successful.

Sandwells director of public health, John Middleton, agrees: The food co-ops have a dual function.

They improve health, since people have access to fresh, vitamin-laden produce, and they also generate great community involvement, since people see them as social business.

However, Ms Rubery stresses the need for improved retail skills. The group felt strongly that sustainable access and growth were not going to work if they were heavily subsidised.

Shopping schemes must be commercially viable in the long term.

When people put all their energies into a local enterprise and it collapses, is very demoralising.

The report uses community-owned retailing as an example of a successful shopping scheme.

As the name suggests, stores are owned and run by the community on a commercial basis, with salaried staff Profits are reinvested in the community and business expertise is provided by local industry. The first pilot is in Longley, Sheffield.

But a key question is whether major retailers will allow vibrant cornershops to develop aren't the big boys part of the problem?

Jeanette Longfield, co-ordinator of Sustain, the alliance for better food and farming, believes this issue has been fudged.

The report fails to mention that big retailers such as Sainsburys have decimated the corner-shop, depriving local retailers of their livelihood and ultimately reducing poorer peoples access to good food because they cant get to the supermarket.

But Toby Peters, a member of PAT13, who started community owned retailing, believes the role of big retailers has changed.

They are there for the big weekly or monthly shop to buy loo-roll and washing powder .

The local shop, which will be in the heart of the community, will have Internet ordering on-site, and will provide locally managed credit services.

It will be the main source of fresh fruit and vegetables which will be a fordable for even the most disadvantaged people. It will be run by local people and the profits will go back into the community. So it will not be competing with the big retailers.

Responses to the consultation document have mostly been positive.

PAT13s Ms Rubery adds: This is only the beginning. There are no quick fixes. We can't make regeneration and neighbourhood renewal happen by tackling just one area.

Joined-up working has become a cliche but its the only way to make the governments social exclusion policies work.

Everyone needs to be involved and there must be more flexible use of budgets to support enterprising schemes. We must also ensure schemes are properly evaluated to examine their impact on health.