Desolation row: the demise of one town

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The Independent Online

The winter sun may have shone brightly on Southend's high street yesterday afternoon but there was little reason for either shoppers or traders to be cheerful as Britain's increasingly gloomy economic situation cast its ugly shadow over the town's main thoroughfare.

As Woolworths shut the doors on the last of its 807 stores across the country there was no last-minute frantic buying or farewell drinks parties in this corner of Essex. Southend's Woolies was among the first to be shut down when the firm went into administration in December, putting 76 people out of work in the town. All that remained were the empty, grimy windows of a now-derelict shop and local memories of a store that once was thronged with shoppers.

"I never imagined there would be a time when Southend didn't have a Woolies," said Gene Gardener, who was out shopping yesterday with her daughter, Janet. "I've lived in the area for more than 40 years and this high street has gone from a place where you were happy to shop in, into a place that you only come to if you have to. We used to have Keddies, a locally owned department store, independent shoe shops, butchers, you name it." Consumer apathy and disinterest, combined with the rise of out-of-town shopping centres and internet buying, has led to the steady decline of Britain's high streets and, with the recession now toppling major high-street brands, there are fears that things will only get worse.

Yesterday Experian, a property consultancy firm that specialises in the retail sector, estimated that vacancy rates nationwide would soar this year, with up to one in 10 shops standing empty by the end of February alone. By the end of 2009, they believe up to 135,000 stores will be unoccupied, the equivalent of 15 per cent of all Britain's shops. Small market towns are expected to be hit the worst.

A brief walk up Southend's high street reveals the all too familiar picture of a once-busy thoroughfare now desperately struggling to remain a vibrant and attractive place to shop. The recession has yet to create the horror of row upon row of boarded-up shops but look closely and financial casualties still litter the landscape, a closed tanning salon here, a boarded-up amusement centre there. At least seven stores are vacant on the high street alone and two others were temporarily occupied over the Christmas period by "bargain stores".

Opposite Woolworths itself, ideally situated at the supposedly busier south end of the high street, next to the town's iconic pier, was a shuttered clothing shop, naked mannequins the only hint to what it once sold there.

"High streets are always difficult places to trade but this year will be particularly tough," said Steve Vincent, who owns the Shake It! milkshake bar, one of the few remaining independent stores still open on the street. "You look outside and see all these people walking to and fro but they're not spending like they might have. I don't know what they're doing, but they're definitely not here to shop."

For shopkeepers such as Mr Vincent, it is the lack of consumer confidence that is most frustrating. "There have been some redundancies in the area but generally most people have their jobs and the same amount of cash they had this time last year but they are afraid to part with their money because they don't know what lies around the corner," he said.

Part of Southend's problem, like so many other small towns across Britain, is that shopping centres have steadily eroded the need to head down to your local high street. Lakeside Shopping Centre, a few miles up the A13, has more than 300 shops under one roof and room for 13,000 cars, and Southend itself has two shopping centres which sit, much to the chagrin of local retailers, at either end of high street. But in The Victoria, one of the town's shopping parks, the picture is even more dire.

Despite a recent £21.5m refurbishment which turned the area from a dreary outdoor concrete shopping precinct of the 1960s into the sort of warm, indoor retail centre that should attract consumers, yesterday it was virtually deserted of both shoppers and retailers. On the ground floor, at least seven units were unoccupied and on the floor above a further 15 units were empty. Zavvi, which went into administration on New Year's Eve, was one of the few busy shops yesterday, primarily because all the stock had an extra 10 per cent discount, but elsewhere the centre felt more like a ghost town. Many of the independent retailers in the building said that they feared the demise of brands such as Zavvi and Woolworths would make it even harder to attract shoppers.

"It was hard enough to trade when they were refurbishing this place but the recession now means huge numbers of shops in here are vacant," said James Wilson, whose family have been running Higgs' Leathers since the 1960s. "Most of the independent retailers moved out or went bust in the past year and I think the developers thought it wouldn't matter because they thought they would attract the big-name chains. But not even they want to open new stores now."

But what can be done to stop more stores disappearing from the high street? "I'll give you one good idea," said Leigh Boyle, who runs Into the Void, a specialist comic bookstore. "The government could temporarily suspend business rates. That would help so many retailers get through the next few months. Instead, they do things like drop the VAT rate which, if you ask anyone round here, hasn't helped us one bit."