No Longer A Nation Of Shopkeepers?

Great Britain

In an act of good will that spectacularly backfired, my well-meaning brother took my mother back to her home town of Brighton to relive happy memories of her childhood. Instead, she spent the day in tears, horrified by the destruction that successive town councils had wrought. The dirty, rundown, poorly rebuilt chaos that greeted her failed to match her memories of elegant streets and seafronts. For people who live a long time, the gap between past and present can be traumatic.

I can still recall the name of every shop in the local high street I used as a child. Most were independent. There were no cafes, coffee-shops or restaurants. Instead, there was an ironmonger, a fish shop, a greengrocer, a toy shop, a bookshop, a pet shop and a bakery. Where I live now there’s one supermarket, eight coffee shops, twelve bars and ten junk-food outlets, nearly all chains. The way we buy (and eat) has changed forever.

To offer proof, the latest figures show that the number of shops on Britain’s high streets has plunged in the first nine months of this year. Town centres saw nearly a thousand closures between January and September, two-and-a-half times the reduction for the whole of 2013.

Clothing shops and services like travel agents were among the hardest hit while betting shops thrived. In fairness, Napoleon’s insult hasn’t been true for decades, but the change accelerated with the rise of online shopping and the economic downturn. The economy may be thriving again, and there’s a theory – more of a middle-class fantasy – that we’ll suddenly get lots of independent shops once more.

Nigel Farage’s potential constituents in Clacton see disaster when they step outside. Although it’s not in the Thanet area, Great Yarmouth’s story is typical; the thriving herring industry collapsed, then the remaining shipping exports disappeared. Tourism died away, leaving the seafront B&Bs with no customers, so the houses were rented to immigrant communities, whose children stage territorial wars with one another. Britain’s coastal towns (many of which have great natural beauty) are almost unique in Europe in that they have become the new poverty traps, areas David Cameron simply surrenders to economic forces.

But UKIP, while rightly identifying the distress of people who see daily decline, misplaces the blame. Farage has looked at the unemployment figures, matched them to the rise in population and drawn a correlation. Britain’s population rise is largely due to an increase in births over deaths (we’re living longer) and there has been a massive change in how the country makes its money; no longer from manufacture but from services. We’re no longer a nation of shopkeepers.

The picture is a complex and frustrating one, but there are small signs of resurgence elsewhere. In Athens, short leases and deals for new companies are leading to the regeneration of the city centre. In the UK, devolution is not the answer; we’ve seen what happens when inept town councils grab handouts for their cronies – up go the ‘signature’ buildings and pointless monuments while high streets rot. Simply blaming the EU is pointless, but easier to grasp.

I don’t think the people of Clacton are stupid; merely desperate for something to change. Voting for a one-policy party won’t change a thing.





4 comments on “No Longer A Nation Of Shopkeepers?”

  1. Gary Hart says:

    Sorry to disappoint, but I live about 15 miles from the said Clacton. They are pretty stupid in general.

  2. Brooke Lynne says:

    My sympathy to your mom. In my walk around our city, I’ve found almost all independently owned book stores, clothing stores and small specialty shops have closed in the past 9 months. Our last bookshop specializing in mysteries, horror and sci-fi will close next month. But lots of ugly burger places, bars and Asian owned manicure places. I’m in tears.

  3. Helen Martin says:

    The coastal Peninsula where I grew up had laws banning chain outlets, a fact I did not know until it finally changed, about 1970. There was no pining for MacDonalds or any of the others but said American company pushed against the law until it was finally changed. The first thing they did was sue a local grocery/snack food store called Mac’s Superette for copyright infringement. The anger raised by that was absolutely deafening and Macdonald’s actually backed down. The local coffee shops have continued and manage to share things quite nicely, especially as the population is much higher now. The book stores have persisted, possibly because Chapters, etc. don’t see it as a large enough market. Sechelt hosts a large and very popular Writers’ Festival every year. (My mother bought tickets and went at age 85). It may not be the traditional sort of independent shop that blooms, but there will be something.

  4. Alan Morgan says:

    It’s much the same up in the high north of Cumbria, in the formerly great fishing or coal ports of Maryport and Workington, yet somehow Cockermouth is different. Apart from a Boots and the odd bank the high street is all indies. About town there are three butchers, two bookshops, an old chemists, a couple of junk/curiosity shops and then the odd hairdressers, jewellers, a couple of bakers (and, a chain bakers) before the shops I have to think hard to remember – curtain shops and the like, but those are all indies. And an excellent arts centre that shows films, stages gigs, theatre and all sorts. It’s not a terribly small place per se but the councils recent efforts to dig all the roads up have hit them hard. But the shops are all operating, and even the bank had to change its front post the flood restoration as it didn’t hit local character.

    But still I’m moving in July, the day my girl finishes primary school. Ten plus years is enough. It takes longer (and is more expensive) to get to the railway station to travel to Liverpool, than it does to then get the train to Liverpool. The call of local railways, big museums, and the city has become too strong. But then when I’m in the city I miss the country, and when I’m in the country I hunger for the city. Never settled, me.

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