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Disappearing High Streets

Should we care that the High Street, as we’ve always
known it, is disappearing?   The answer, I feel, lies in the subsidiary
clause.  ‘As we’ve always known it’ harks
back to a bygone age.   

Anyway, try as I might, I find it hard to share the
nostalgia that so many people feel whenever some well-known retail chain goes
under.  Have we really been diminished by
the demise of Woolworths, or – if you can remember that far back – Burton’s? 

As for the recent crop of bankruptcies I can summon
few regrets beyond a passing concern about how the former employees will find
jobs.  I don’t think I ever set foot in
Comet or HMV.  Jessops (no relation, by
the way) sold expensive cameras and equipment that would have been wasted on me
(and were evidently wasted on everyone else, as well).  I used to hate going to Blockbusters to rent
films; what an absurd idea in this digital age. 
Besides, I found our local branch profoundly depressing, with its
unappealing clientele of people dressed in bum-exposing jeans, sweat-shirts and
purple trainers shuffling up to the counter with armloads of Bruce Willis and
Arnold Schwarzenegger, or teenage vampire films, and bucket-loads of popcorn.  Jessops and Blockbuster, even if they’d been
well-managed, which is arguable, sooner or later would have fallen victim to

Should we then regret the rise of internet
shopping?   Not at all, though I’ll admit to a twinge of
shame, whenever I buy books from Amazon, as the wielder of the hammer that
bangs another nail into the coffin of our friendly local bookshop.  The manager there gives every impression that
she’s read every volume she sells – and probably has – always ready with an
intelligent opinion.  Still, I’m
hard-pressed to object to the convenience of an on-line system that requires me
to spend no more than a minute filling in a form with my credit card number and
reliably delivers the books to my home two days later.

Shopping malls are not my scene, I’ll admit, but the
best are bright, cheerful places, protected from the elements of an English
winter, and with a broad variety of the kind of stores that most shoppers
require.  Moreover, they usually offer
easy and inexpensive parking.  Unlike most
high streets, strung out along a busy road, which rarely offer the goods or
services that most of us need, and where parking is often a battle of wits with
parking attendants trained as Latvian prison guards. 

My local high street (Esher)
is a case in point.  Conceived and built
in the 1930s, it has the singular disadvantage of straddling a perpetually busy
four-lane A-road, with just a single crossing point.  Most of the premises are now occupied by
estate agents and kitchenware showrooms, and banks that provide few useful
services beyond the cashing of payroll cheques. 

If we want high streets to become once more – assuming
they ever were – the social focal point of the community, then they must become
more welcoming, with places where people like to congregate such as
restaurants, coffee houses, tea rooms and pubs. Retailers have a place too, of
course, but they need to offer the specific products or personalized services we
all need from time to time: post office, hairdresser, butcher, delicatessen, gift
shop and florist.  

Sadly, few such businesses at present can afford the
kind of rents demanded by grasping high street landlords content to profit from
dilapidation – but market forces will enforce change in that regard.  We might have to fire a few so-called town
planners in the process.

Change is starting to happen.  The trouble is that it’s happening with all
the public enthusiasm that a Britain
steeped in quaint Edwardian notions of community can muster. 

Even so, it should be less a source of regret
than of opportunity.


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