It is not necessary to be a professional shopping guru, such as Mary Portas, to observe that in many parts of Britain the traditional high street is ailing. But it is gratifying when cold, hard figures serve to reinforce what might otherwise be dismissed as a subjective, or local, impression. A report out today, compiled by PwC and the Local Data Company, does just that, charting changes in the high street that should be of as much concern to local councils as they already are to the people who live there – which is four out of five in our highly urbanised population.
According to the report, smaller store chains have suffered, as have clothes, toy and furniture shops. Purveyors of gifts, cards, camping gear and computer games have been closing, while the big growth has been – as if we had not noticed – in money-related services, such as cheque-cashing and pawnbrokers. Betting shops and discount stores are multiplying, as are charity shops, though more slowly.
There will, of course, be different reasons for decline as there will be for growth, and they will be positive as well as negative. Not all closures can be blamed on out-of-town shopping centres. The loss of some specialist shops may reflect rapid expansion that produced oversupply. It can also make sense for stores selling furniture, say, to seek more space out of town or transfer some business to the internet. Some changes, for better and worse, simply reflect new tastes and buying patterns.
But it is hard to greet the rapid expansion of discount stores and betting shops, for instance, with much enthusiasm, or to see many other changes in any positive light. What is being lost most conspicuously is the sort of larger store that provided a focus and drew shoppers to the high street, while the most spectacular gains have been made by those who traditionally sought to separate the poor from their money.
And while not all is gloom – a separate report shows a continuing increase in the number of independent shops – these new independents are disproportionately clustered in better-off areas, suggesting a widening gap between high streets in rich and poor areas. Disadvantaged communities seem to lose the very shops, selling reasonably priced fresh food, for instance, that local people arguably need the most.
There are those who argue, fatalistically, that the high streets have had their day. The affection in which people hold them, however, and our envy of their flourishing counterparts on the Continent, suggest that they do not have to die. One of the more positive developments of the past couple of years has been the return of major supermarkets to town centres with much smaller outlets, which can encourage more, smaller, shops to move in, too.
The reality is, however, that townspeople can do little unless the local council shares their priorities – which is a question less of money than of planning. Many councils seem reluctant to accept that one answer to empty shops and failing businesses during a recession might be lower rents, even as they dispense leases to the umpteenth coffee shop or bookmaker. There needs to be decent public transport, but a dogmatic anti-car approach is likely to send parents with young families straight to the internet grocer or out-of-town mall. The livelier town centres generally accommodate at least some street parking, with controls. Most of all, though, councils need to do more to influence the mix of shops and services through the planning and tax levers they control. Local people know that any high street lined with charity shops and discount stores is a failure; but it is a failure in which, through neglect, the local council is complicit.