Saturday, 17 December 2011

The High Street

There is a great deal of concern all over Britain that our towns and cities are losing the traditional High Street.  Why? people are asking, especially those who want us to go and spend money in their shops.

Before that question can be answered we need to think back thirty or forty years and remind ourselves what a traditional High Street used to offer.  Butchers, bakers, fishmongers, greengrocers, banks, dress shops, menswear shops, shoe shops, chemists, furniture shops, carpet shops, electrical shops, record shops, bookshops, newsagents, jewellers – a long list, indeed.

Who would use these shops?  Probably the people who lived within walking distance.  Housewives going to do their weekly, or more likely, daily shop.  Weekly markets provided added extras and brought people into the High Street to look for cheap bargains.

People lived close to the town centres.  If you lived in a big town or city there would be more than one High Street, even if it wasn’t actually called High Street.  Forty years ago not everyone had a car and if you could not walk to the shops you were in trouble.

Most things were bought locally.  I furnished my first home entirely from town centre shops, everything from carpets to the cooker. 

So why are these places no longer thriving?

I think the first thing that happened is that people moved away from the town centre to live on new housing estates.  And I don’t mean council estates, I’m talking about the new housing estates that were built for the up-and-coming, the well-paid factory workers and those seeking the very British desire of owning their own home, complete with garage and garden.  These meant travelling into town, preferably by car because no one wanted to lug all their shopping back on the bus.  Coming to town by car meant parking, which meant councils had to provide car parks, which meant drivers had to pay parking fees.  Judging by the fact that it is often difficult to find a parking space on a Saturday I don’t think these fees have put people off coming to town, it just increases the cost.

Life styles have changed.  More often than not these days both partners in any relationship work (if they are lucky enough to have a job).  This means shopping is no longer a leisurely process but something that has to be done as quickly as possible.  Supermarkets and shopping malls which provide easy and usually free parking, have taken over.

Then we have the British weather.  Always unpredictable, never the same two days running, cold in the winter and too hot in the summer, likely to be wet whatever the season.

Question: would you want to go from the butchers, the bakers, the greengrocers etc, queuing  at every shop to pay, in the wind and the rain, or would you prefer to go to one shop and get all your food at once, in the dry and warm and only queue once?

Question: when you are looking for something special would you want to go around town, in the wind and the rain, looking in all the different shops, or would you prefer to park your car and wander round under cover in a nice climate controlled shopping mall?

Question: if you need something you have never used before and don’t know where to get it, do you wander round town hoping to find a shop that might stock what you want or do you switch on your computer and Google it?

I know which I would do!

So if people are deserting the High Streets for supermarkets, shopping malls and the internet what can be done to stop towns centres becoming black holes?

I am not a town planner or a shopping guru but I would think one thing that would help would be to bring people back to live in the town centres.  If people are living close by they might well use a small grocers to stock up on day to day things. 

Change the opening hours of shops.  What is the point of opening nine to five when your customers are at work?  Supermarkets realise this and most stay open into the evening.  The same with the big shopping malls, they don’t all suddenly close at five.  It’s a pain to those who have to work in the shops but that’s the way life is these days.   Shops are there to serve the customer not the other way around.  Not long ago I had to go to an event in my local town which started at about 6pm.  Because I wasn’t sure how the evening traffic would be I ended up arriving early and thought I would go for a coffee, only to find the town was closed.

I’m probably the wrong person to be writing about this subject as I hate wandering aimlessly around shops.  I’m not interested in browsing for things I don’t need and would happily do all my shopping on line from the comfort of my armchair and without the hassle of driving and parking.  Towns need to be places where people want to meet and do things together, where they feel safe and comfortable.  But then they also need the people who want to go out in the first place, not stop-at-homes like me!

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