Leading Article: From market town to ghost town

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The Independent Online
MINISTERS have diagnosed the problem, but have yet to prescribe a cure. They have belatedly recognised that British urban life is threatened by rapidly expanding out-of-town shopping. Dudley, in the West Midlands, is the latest casualty, having lost 70 per cent of its business to the new Merry Hill shopping complex. Prosperous places can easily be turned overnight into ghost towns.

In a memorandum published yesterday, three government departments predict worse to come if no action is taken. As superstore competition is focused on small market towns, the effect of mass desertion by consumers is likely to be stark. Incumbent Tory MPs in these party strongholds will not welcome explaining why the high street is becoming derelict.

Yet the Government has few ideas about how to stop the rot in the country's urban centres. John Gummer, Secretary of State for the Environment, says that he will be tougher on planning applications for the development of 'sheds on the bypass', as he calls them. But lack of clarity about new requirements has only made the process look whimsical and plunged out-of- town developers into financial uncertainty.

The Government should be more dirigiste, giving simple but precise details of its planning priorities. In any case, it will take more than fiddling with the rules to save town centres. All the trends are towards shopping by car on the edges of urban areas. There will have to be a transformation in attitudes to make towns more attractive to shoppers who often have little time to buy goods and find the allure of superstores irresistible.

Paradoxically, towns may have to be more accommodating to cars. At the moment there is too great a disparity between the open arms with which out-of-town stores greet the motorist and the harassment that characterises urban areas. Additionally, shopping in towns needs to be more consumer- friendly. Buses should be designed that can accommodate heavy bags easily. Shops should deliver to customers. Traders must be innovative, like their out-of-town competitors, who provide creches, lavatories and other facilities.

Lateral, imaginative thinking that would make towns hospitable market places is the way to salvation. Otherwise the high street's future looks poor - even with the protection that Mr Gummer has promised.