Mary Dejevsky: Charity that impoverishes the high street

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The Independent Online

It has been a long time coming, but at last someone is questioning the benefit from charity shops, even if his motives are not entirely altruistic. That someone is Marc Harrison, who closed his antiquarian and second-hand book shop in Salisbury at the end of last month, complaining that the arrival of an Oxfam bookshop 18 months before halved his takings overnight. He described Oxfam as "the Tesco of the second-hand book world" and accused it of "destroying the industry".

These were strong and emotive words but I don't think Mr Harrison is completely wrong. Nor is it only small second-hand bookshops that are threatened with a metaphorical bull-dozing when charity shops advance.

We like to think of these shops as one of those well-intentioned British institutions that could not possibly do any harm and may do quite a lot of people some good. Those with surplus belongings – which is a lot of us – can dispense with them and feel good about themselves by donating them. They – we – salve our consciences and the proceeds go to a good cause.

Which is a nice idea, in theory. But in practice, how does it work? For the donors it works spectacularly well. It works for buyers, too, especially the better-off ones, because – let's be honest – the better goods fetch up in the better areas. Charity shops function here as a more thrifty source of glad rags than the dress agency or the "retro" boutique. Oh yes, we know a bargain when we see one.

But just take a look at where the charity shops are. Once upon a time, there was maybe one charity shop per high street. Now, though, the trend is for these shops to cluster in certain streets and in certain parts of town. The consequence is whole rows of them, cheek by jowl, offering second-hand everything, with precious little genuine commerce in between. These tend to be the same streets and the same areas where there is no supermarket worth the name – only cash-and-carry stores or "corner" shops, which offer only goods that never spoil. Open all hours they may be, but they are not a reliable source of nutrition.

And why do the charity shops congregate here? Because no one else wants to. Few commercial businesses are interested in such unpromising consumer territory. They balance the cost of the lease, the business rate and the likely proceeds, and the sums do not add up. Paradoxically, only charities can afford these premises: they qualify for a generous rebate from the council on the business rate, and sometimes that rate is waived altogether.

Rather than reviving a languishing high street, though, the effect is the reverse. The fewer rate-paying businesses there are, the less attention the local council will pay to maintenance. And the worse the services, the fewer promising businesses will want to move in. And the fewer businesses there are paying money to the council, the more the rate will rise for those deemed able to pay.

So the streets and the shopping decline. The only businesses that can afford to move in are those that are not taxed to do so: the charity shops. Within only a few years, the sight of a charity shop in the high street has gone from being a sign of prosperity to proof of poverty. Once there are two, three or four, it is downhill all the way.

Increasingly, charity shops are parasites. They feed off, and eventually kill, much-needed local commerce. They make poor areas poorer. Until councils either reduce the tax breaks or – better – offer balancing incentives for mainstream commerce, the only choice of shopping in less affluent areas will be between other people's cast-offs or nothing at all.

A toast to the teamwork that saves lives

Now I know that Formula 1 drivers need to be super-fit and resilient, but I still looked up at the television screen in disbelief on hearing someone who sounded like the Brazilian, Felipe Massa, saying he couldn't wait to get back to the track.

Massa, you will recall, suffered a potentially life-threatening head injury when his helmet was pierced by debris during practice for the Hungarian Grand Prix. Only days before, a doctor had been explaining on television, in all too graphic detail and with the aid of a hinged skull, the exact nature of his injury and the likely prognosis. Summed up, this was: "Not good".

Less than two weeks later, however, here was Massa, very much alive and with his faculties seemingly unimpaired. Not only had he been discharged from hospital in Hungary, he had taken the long journey home to Brazil.

Brains are fragile things; the success of brain surgery depends on the finest of micro-judgements. A crack Ferrari team may be able to change tyres in seven seconds, but the teamwork required to repair a brain takes many hours.

Let's hear it, then, for the unsung heroes of this saga: the brain surgeons and the emergency team at the AEK military hospital in Budapest. Massa owes his future to them.

An eternity measured out in traffic cones

You could have knocked me down with, well, a feather, if I hadn't been driving. Through the windscreen, and then – just to check – in the rear-view mirror, I saw four clear lanes of road stretching to the horizon, with bright new white lines inscribed on them. It was Saturday evening on the M1, at what used to be that eternal bottleneck around Luton. The only cones nestled in a single line against the crash barrier, to remind us.

For as long as I can remember (I'm talking years, not months), a clear run out of London to the north was routinely frustrated by roadworks at Luton: northbound, southbound, same thing. While cheering the crews who finally got it done, I still wonder why it is that anything to do with roads, whether widening, resurfacing, cabling and the rest, takes so long and entails so many intervals of glaring inactivity. Oh yes, and why so much of what I have learnt to call "plant" looks as though it has come out of the ark.

Given that such works, for obvious reasons, take place so often at acute pressure points, why is there is so little sense of urgency? Other European nations' road works don't look like ours. They look altogether sprucer and more purposeful. They also seem to get finished.

Which reminds me, alas. In my euphoria at passing Luton at 70mph, to the delightful accompaniment of the film-score Prom on Radio 3, something had slipped my memory: the new northbound crawl through junctions 25 to 28. They were just putting out more cones. Could Mansfield be the new Luton?

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