High streets don't need chain stores


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The Independent Online

What a load of bilge has been spouted over the demise of Blockbuster, Jessops and HMV. Commentators whimpered over the end of an era, as if we all spent our seminal years on a weekly pilgrimage to leaf through the racks of CDs. This rose-tinted view of the past as being somehow more desirable than the present is the kind of cloying sentimentality that holds Britain back on the world stage. It's sad for the thousands of employees who are losing their jobs, but many are young and will find work with other retailers or distribution centres. In less than a month, 1,400 stores closed or went into administration, the worst figures on record. Many of these properties are "zombies", bad investments the banks should have called in ages ago, killed off by one key group – us, fickle consumers, who have completely changed how and where we shop. The high street of yesteryear will never return, in spite of much hand-wringing on the part of Mary Portas or shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna, who wants to launch a "small business Saturday".

There needs to be a new model for the high street which doesn't compete with online shopping and out-of-town superstores, but offers something completely different. Pedestrianisation killed off shopping too – old people who enjoy daily shopping as a social activity, where they can meet people, can't be arsed to walk a mile through a windy piazza. Parking is expensive for families and high rates are forcing out small retailers who make a shopping trip memorable. Ominously, Tesco is planning to infiltrate our high streets in a new guise, as a partner in a chain of coffee shops – the more chains in your high street, the less reason to go there. In the future, most shops will be places where we go to look at stuff we buy online, glorified showrooms.

Instead of retail, low-cost housing, old people's homes and community centres must be placed right at the heart of our towns, not away from transport and services in suburbia. Councils must offer cheap rates to small traders, not chains. It's not all bad news, by the way. John Lewis, Argos, Dixons and Primark all reported excellent sales over Christmas. In the end, running a successful business is about service. My shoemender in Whitstable repaired the broken strap on my old Ferragamo handbag for £26. He did a brilliant job. Shops like that will keep our high streets alive, not blubbing over Blockbusters.

Own goal

The Guardian has been devoting a huge amount of space to full-page ads claiming the newspaper, along with its stablemate The Observer, "own the weekend". The campaign launched online and in cinemas with a spoof movie trailer, introduced by a self-mocking Hugh Grant, opining about "an integrity that bleeds into everything they do". Not everything, perhaps. Last weekend, guest writer Julie Burchill wrote a stonking piece in The Observer, defending her friend Suzanne Moore against a torrent of abuse from transsexuals who had objected to a piece she had written about feminism in the New Statesman. I laughed when I read Julie's vitriolic riposte to the angry transgender people. What better reward for any columnist? It more than repaid the cost of my Observer. Sadly, the people in charge of "owning the weekend" don't put their money where their mouths are by defending free speech. Following outrage online and on Twitter, editor John Mulholland issued an apology and Julie's piece was removed from the Observer and Guardian website. Pathetic.

The director responsible for the overblown "owning the weekend" ad is Tim Godsall of Biscuit Filmworks, whose work includes campaigns for Lynx, Southern Comfort and Old Spice. In the Lynx commercial, a man rescues a woman from a burning house. In the Southern Comfort ad, a fat bloke with a paunch walks along a beach past women in swimsuits. He holds a glass containing a flag announcing "whatever's comfortable". Where are the feminist-friendly credentials in Mr Godsall's CV?

Royal advantage

About half of all graduates struggle to find a full-time job, so it's not surprising two high-profile women are using their very special contacts. Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie are fifth and sixth in line to the throne, and achieved pretty ordinary degrees from Goldsmiths and Newcastle. A year after leaving college, Beatrice eventually secured a job with a firm of venture capitalists, and is studying for her exams in financial services. Eugenie wants to work in the art world, and has yet to find a real job after taking a series of internships.

Can someone explain why these two pleasant, privileged young women, who spend their free time in expensive nightclubs with wealthy aristos, should represent British talent in Germany? Are they the brightest, the most brilliant young people this country has to offer? Since the palace decided to remove their 24-hour police protection last year, Prince Andrew is funding their bodyguards from his own pocket, at a cost of up to £250,000 a year. After standing down as a trade ambassador after criticism of his travelling costs, the prince lobbied for his daughters to be given a role in public life, even though the palace is cutting costs and reducing the number of royals working for the Firm.

Now, the girls have been paraded around Berlin and Hanover promoting British trade, driving a Mini and visiting schools and museums. On Friday, they were in Hanover for the segment of their jaunt headed Heritage and Knowledge. Most Germans have no idea who they are, but the Foreign Office says the girls will go on more trips in the future, as "they are young, interesting and cool". Says who? Prince Andrew paid their airfares, and probably coughed up for their designer wardrobe. Not much of a level playing field for unemployed graduates, when a girl with the right bloodline and little else to commend her can put "trade ambassador" on her CV.

Copper work

A sensible move to cut police starting pay to £19,000 from £23,000. Police pay is unnecessarily complicated, with automatic perks like "competence-related threshold payments" of £1,000 a year. Surely that just translates as doing the job.

Theresa May has reduced starting salaries to the level of 10 years ago, and the new starting pay will reward those with experience. A community support officer or a special constable who recruits will be entitled to £22,000, and promotion will be speeded up. It will take seven years, not 10, to reach the rank of constable and earn £36,000, and pay will be weighted according to region.

Naturally, the plans met with the usual guff about insulting "brave individuals on the front line", but they are long overdue. Why should school leavers with no academic qualifications start on £24,000? The modern police force needs to target smart recruits, with the right skills, not plods.