Wednesday, January 16, 2013

A time of social change

The closures of Jessops and HMV (and now Blockbuster) are, like the closures of Woolworth, Clinton Cards and various other well known High Street stores over the past three or four years part of a bigger social as well as economic change as far as I can see.

Anybody over a certain age will have almost certainly have grown up within walking distance of a High Street that included an independent butcher, baker, greengrocer, fishmonger, newsagent, Post Office, chemist, record shop, fish and chip shop, Woolworths and probably, a street or two back from the High Street, a small garage where your Dad took his car to be repaired.  Then along came the first supermarkets, the first one I can remember was the International Stores closely followed by Pricerite, but the independents still survived because they offered personal service and the chance to catch up on local gossip. Over a period of some thirty years more supermarkets opened, then out of town 'retail experiences' and then of course along came the Internet.

At each stage of the move from 1950's Britain to the 21st Century the consumer began wanting better quality combined with lower prices, this combined with at least three recessions, up and downs in employment and the banking crisis led to a complete overhaul in the way that many people shop, either firsthand or online. There has however been the ever so slight whiff of hypocrisy in some cases, not least in the town where I live where I think it's fair to say the town seems to have sleepwalked itself into, well sleep.

Fifteen years ago we were a town with that idyllic High Street, the only thing missing was the independent baker. There is a shopping centre in the town built in the late 1970's which housed several independents, plus Boots and WH Smith, Robert Dyas and a supermarket - usually one from the cheap end (Co-Op or Somerfield). We had, and still have, a public library, independent book shop, a couple of clothes shops but the High Street is now dominated by 21 (yes 21!) places where you can eat and drink (that excludes two pubs) plus at least half a dozen charity shops. We now have three supermarkets (Co-Op, M & S and Waitrose) which pretty much account for the widest spectrum of disposable incomes, plus on the outskirts of town is a Sainsbury's, a Lidl and there's a free bus service to Tesco. Things all changed for the worse when the shopping centre was sold to an insurance company which promptly increased the rents it was charging and tenants moved out in their droves.

Recently three planning applications have been submitted to the council for proposed developments, one is on the site of an old MOD site, the second is where a huge warehouse stood and the third is on the site of a company that is looking to sell its freehold and move to Bournemouth Airport. The first two involve mixed areas for shops, low cost housing, a health club, restaurants etc, the second site (the old MOD site) is on one of the two rivers that flows through the town and it will have a great backdrop. It is the third proposal that has whipped up most of the frenzy among residents and in the press, this is because the first two went through virtually unopposed, there is no doubt that they will improve both the areas concerned. The third development, which has now been refused, would have meant another supermarket (Morrisons) taking over the site, redeveloping it, improving the traffic flow in the area and creating some 200 plus jobs. When the planning application was rejected it went to appeal and was rejected again, this was the point at which the local paper almost went into meltdown. Councillors were accused of being out of touch, too old and not caring about the people they were elected to represent - these by the way are the same councillors who only twelve months earlier had approved a scheme for the conversion of the old NHS building in town into a Lenny Henry type of hotel which in itself would create many jobs.

When people talk about the closure of HMV and Jessops being the latest big names to vanish from the High Street they seem to be missing something. It's the closure of all the smaller independents that have changed the face of the High Street. About ten minutes from where we live is another High Street which consists almost exclusively (there is a Co-Op at one end) of small family run businesses, go there on a Saturday and the place is buzzing. The same is true of the nearest shopping centre which consists of the big names such as Waterstones, Boots, Asda, Sainsbury's, Next, M & S etc, no small shops but always packed because it offers a wide choice of well known brands.

We have somewhere got stuck between the two, a small town with five supermarkets, a lot of places to eat and shops where you can donate your old clothes yet the decline of the High Street is never discussed beyond applications to open yet more places to eat (fortunately this has now stopped as there is a limit on the number allowed), and the clamour for more of the same. Our soulless High Street has in some ways reached what I suspect many would have regarded, some time back in the 1940's, as the Utopian ideal, a selection of shops that sell as many products as possible under one roof.

What is missing though from our High Street is the social interaction, the sense of community, it's been replaced by skinny lattes (whatever they are) and free Wi-Fi access so that the general soothing noise of a community trading and dealing with each other has been replaced by the tapping on laptops, notebooks and the sound of rummaging for secondhand clothes. I know that makes me sound old and I've never wanted to be one of those characters from Cheers where everybody knows my name when I walk into a shop or bar but we did have a sense of community and continuity back then and that's gone......forever.


A Northern Bloke said...

We are becoming more and more insular, seemingly terrified of interacting with others.

Life is fast becoming a solitary pursuit.

Paul said...

You are so right, despite those two lines being possibly the saddest I have read for a long time.

Span Ows said...

Agree entirely, with both of you. :-(

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