When it suits some, the Brexit factor is certainly a convenient one. It’s surfaced as an excuse of late in a handy round of pass-the-buck that covers a few questionable tracks. Local councillors and business leaders in Staffordshire haven’t blamed the decline and fall of their high-streets on the sunshine, the moonlight, the good times or even the boogie, but on the Brexit. Unhelpful city centre parking facilities, extortionate rents for shop premises, out-of-town retail parks and internet shopping all pale next to the Brexit factor – at least according to the good burghers of Burslem in Stoke-on-Trent; there’s also the small issue of the demise of the town’s world-famous industry, one that enabled places like Burslem to thrive and prosper, and how it hasn’t been replaced. But blame it on the Brexit.
We’ve seen this before, of course. Britain’s traditional heavy industries – whether the mines, steelworks, or the potteries – employed the communities that sprang up around them; when the industries died, the communities died with them. What’s left behind is a sorry shadow of what once was, and Burslem is officially the country’s premier ghost town when it comes to commerce; the shop vacancy rate there is thrice the national average of 12.2%, standing at a dismal 31.5%. One in three empty shops does not a busy town centre make, and Burslem is home to 11,000 people who are being so poorly served that they drive to neighbouring Newcastle-under-Lyme or Stoke itself rather than circumnavigate the maze of double yellow lines or cough-up for an hour’s worth of parking if they actually find a space when they might only want a packet of fags.
The Local Data Company compiled their depressing survey by visiting 2,700 towns and cities and found a trail of abandonment that was hardly unique to Burslem; it just happened to be the worst. In fact, I have it on good authority (i.e. from someone who lives there) that our very own City of Culture – AKA Hull – has its fair share of boarded-up shop fronts that hardly exude the spirit of a bustling commercial hub, let alone a cultural one. This all predates Brexit, but Brexit will suffice as a reason when councillors are confronted by the casual neglect of town and city centres that stretches back years. There is now probably at least one generation that has never associated the shopping experience with the high-street; theirs has been shaped by the mall.
For the traditional high-street, the mall was a monster it couldn’t compete with. As the big name stores gradually vacated their cramped old premises and moved to expansive new locations in the mall, town centres slowly embarked upon an agonising descent into dereliction, losing the motorist as a customer and leaving the pedestrian shopper with an increasingly limited choice. The remaining high-street supermarkets resorted to desperate measures, expanding their value own-brands, loudly promoting the ‘Buy one, get one free’ special offers, and introducing the most contentious development of all – maximising the sale of cheap alcohol, something that helped fuel the craze for ‘binge-drinking’ and also undercut the already ailing local public house.
The cheap booze policy may have kept several supermarkets in business, but the high-street of the 21st Century, peppered with bargain basement pound-stores and charity shops, is a depressingly uninspiring location. Gone are many of the familiar old supermarkets and gone are the old all-purpose stores like Woolworth’s, whose once-unique selling points can now be found in a dozen different shops under the roof of the mall or in the retail park warehouse. At the dawn of the economic meltdown that the 2008 banking crisis spawned, dear old ‘Woolies’ went to the wall, the first in a series of high-street names to vanish from the landscape in a matter of weeks, including furniture giants MFI, bookstore chain Borders, and Zavvi, the short-lived record shop chain that had purchased the old Virgin stores – all of which left the high-street more decimated than ever. What replaced them hardly instilled the high-street shopper with confidence.
The multi-purpose nature of malls also dealt a blow to other long-standing town centre fixtures. Many old picture houses, having survived the popularity of television and home-video by the skin of their teeth, finally succumbed to the changing climate when massive multiplex cinemas began to establish themselves as key ingredients of the retail parks. These glaringly impersonal and aesthetically unappetising arenas of artifice were nevertheless the ideal environments to showcase the merchandise trailers masquerading as movies that Hollywood has invested in from the 90s onwards.
But throwing all retail eggs in one basket can have catastrophic consequences for the towns that gleefully discard their high-streets, as has already been shown across the Atlantic. There have been several cases in America where malls have actually closed their doors for good, becoming so-called ‘dead malls’, whether due to changes in the social demographic of the residential areas surrounding the mall or because the owners of the establishment have decided to relocate their operations elsewhere. When this occurs, a town that had allowed its former high-street to decay as all leading business had decamped to the mall is suddenly left without any notable shopping areas for its citizens; although this has yet to happen in the UK, the recession that descended upon Britain in the wake of 2008 suggests that such a devastating event is not beyond the realm of possibility, and looking at the ghost towns many British high-streets have become in recent years doesn’t auger well.
Perhaps hope for the high-street lies with those who have chosen to set-up shop in Britain from foreign climes; just as Asian immigrants saved the corner-shop from extinction in the 60s and 70s, maybe the migrants from Eastern Europe who have colonised some British high-streets with cafes and bistros that specialise in their own exotic cuisine point the way forward to a future in which the high-street can be reborn as a cornucopia of choice that even the mall can’t compete with. And why attempt to compete, anyway? Make the high-street a separate entity, a true alternative to the mall, and maybe it’ll build up a clientage unique to itself.
© The Editor