The British High Street

Some policies seem destined to fail. Governments have tried to save our High Streets for decades. They have experimented with parking, and with rates, and with planning regulations. And the result has been catastrophe. We have gone from 43,000 butchers in 1950 to 10,000 fifty years later; from 41,000 greengrocers to 10,000. The number of bakers is now a quarter of what it used to be; the number of fishmongers, a fifth. And supermarkets now account for 93 per cent of groceries sold in the UK.

It reminds me of our policy against Somali pirates. We are told that it is vital for the national interest to stop piracy. There are seven UN resolutions calling for action, and three separate multilateral naval task forces sail out to fight them. And after all this work, there were more attacks, and we paid more ransom last year, than in any previous year. It seems that, for whatever reason, Somali pirates are too difficult for us – and High Streets sometimes seem the same. As with any such failure, it is partly because you are facing almost irresistible historical forces – and partly because there is a limit to what we are prepared to do to stop them.

The House of Commons debated how to save the British High Street again this week. It was not a party political debate – there were no whips, no party lines, not even a vote. And certainly no reporters in the gallery. But it was immensely popular: nearly sixty MPs put down to speak (I bobbed up and down for nearly five hours before I was called). My father, who often complains about “professional politicians, who have never done anything else”, would have been surprised by the speakers. Those from the new 2010 intake alone included shopkeepers, farmers, architectural planners, and GPs, and two MPs who were over sixty when first elected. The Minister described the problems of opening his own small print shop. The member for Fylde reflected on 15 years in high street retail and the problems posed by charity shops. The member for Cleethorpes explained – on the basis of 24 years of experience trying to lead urban regeneration – how grand phrases like “a visionary, strategic, and strong operational team” are dissolved in the realities of planning, traffic and parking. The debate was informed, and realistic. But also a depressing reminder of how little progress we are making in saving the High Streets.

It can seem an almost impossible fight, because the market pressures, which favour large out of town stores, are so powerful. Large retailers choose to be out of town because they can get better space for their products, better parking, and good night-time delivery. Customers often find large stores an easier and preferable shopping experience. And it is not simply about parking or price: out of town retailers often provide an enormous range of products, and display them very attractively. These near universal forces push aside the most determined resistance – they have undermined not just the markets of Penrith and Surrey but also the covered bazaars of Iran and the main streets of rural Massachusetts – and by almost exactly the same means. But they have also brought us a choice of goods unimaginable in any other context. When my neighbour’s American mother married a Cumbrian in the 1950s, she could only get olive oil in the chemist in Penrith in a miniature bottle, as medicine. Today, the Co-op seems to stock half a dozen varieties of ‘extra virgin’. (I’m not going to try to count the range in Booth’s).

If we are serious about defeating a force so powerful, so motivated, and so insidious, we need to make very difficult choices and sacrifices. It is not simply that councils would have to forego parking charges, or residents put up with night-time deliveries in the high street, or landlords be forced to let empty properties. Councils would have to be willing to turn down the huge sums offered by supermarkets, and to take the financial risk of being sued. We would need very determined local leaders (perhaps only directly elected mayors would have the status, the confidence, and the support). And Mary Portas, whose recent report is perhaps the most considered and provocative analysis of this problem, says that her instinct was to recommend, across the country, an “immediate moratorium” on any new out-of-town developments.

It is not easy to defend such a policy. All the arguments of price, market competition, choice, and money, favour the out-of-town retailers – against the “inconvenience and cost” of town centres. But however difficult a High Street is to defend, we should fight, because they matter to us in a way that Somali piracy does not. A High Street matters because it makes citizens. It offers, almost uniquely, somewhere quite different from the workplace and the home: a civic space, which is neither about business nor about privacy – a public space in which the individual rubs shoulders with fellow citizens, often half-known or unknown. From those innumerable miniature exchanges of advice and wisdom, on greens, or market squares, in the walk from the grocers to the newsagents, are woven the warp and weft of a community.

Some might think this is an old-fashioned rural view and that I have been mesmerised by the varied sandstone avenue that leads from Appleby castle to the market cross. But I’d say it may be even more important in places without a medieval centre. The reason that sixty colleagues from Dudley to Bracknell to Swindon pushed to speak this week is that they too sense how our High Streets create, and shape, a local identity, which is perhaps the most powerful and precious part of any identity.

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