The Government's tsarina of Britain's high streets, Mary Portas, has recommended limits on the number of (tax-privileged) charity shops permitted in any one place. I wish her luck. When I condemned the proliferation of charity shops a year or so ago, describing them as parasites feeding off small business, I received one of the most furious e-postbags I have ever had, and not a few personal envoys from charities trying to convince me of the error of my ways.
Oh, but their supporters say, charity shops are a boon to those who cannot afford to buy new. And they keep the high street alive, when empty shops can't find other takers. And they provide charities with a significant and steady source of income. Cancer Research, for instance, earns around 15 per cent of its £400m-plus income this way.
To which my argument, and I hope Ms Portas's, is that the problem is not the principle of charity shops, which is laudable, but their concentration in particular areas. The point is that the tax breaks, rate rebates and the like, enjoyed by charity shops distort the local business landscape.
And the distortion grows with each new arrival. Few councils want to improve, or even maintain, streets where almost no one pays rent or rates; the environment deteriorates, and there goes the high street. Empty shops show that rent and rates are too high; not that some, however good the cause, should be exempt.
If the heat from the voluble charity lobby becomes too much, Ms Portas might turn her attention to another blight affecting many of the same areas: the plague of betting shops. Last week the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, finally saw sense – maybe one has just moved in next door, where the butcher or baker used to be – and reversed his view on whether such establishments should require planning permission. Of course they should.
Alas, his conversion probably comes too late for many high streets. All over the country, council-tax payers are complaining about the triffid-like advance of betting shops, which require no special permission before setting up in former post offices, pubs and corner shops. I know the feeling. There are two rival betting shops around the corner from our flat. One has a nursery above it – No, you haven't misunderstood, gambling occupies the ground floor; mothers have to get their toddlers upstairs.
Yet when a major supermarket applied to open a small store in vacant premises not 100 yards away, offering residents a source of cheaper, healthier food than the corner shop and myriad sandwich bars provide, it was refused planning permission because of potential noise and nuisance (delivery vans and customers, I presume).
It's my loss, I know, but the charms of modern classical music, as in post-Schoenberg, electronic, serial and the rest, have rather escaped me. Messiaen is about as recent as my classical appreciation gets. Driving along a jammed motorway a few days ago, though, I caught a recording of the Concerto for Orchestra and Birds by the contemporary Finnish composer, Rautavaara, which incorporates ever-longer passages of recorded birdsong. It is utterly captivating.
Rautavaara, I learnt, is seen as the heir to Sibelius, whose symphonies feature in a new series at the Barbican, and both belong in a very specific Finnish tradition. And while the degree to which music reflects landscape and national character may be nowhere more evident than with Finland, it's often left to foreigners to note how eloquently Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Britten reflect us.Reuse content