I remember when the first supermarket was opened in Lincoln High Street. It must have been the early 1960s. There was a great discussion in the local paper ‘The Lincolnshire Echo’. I recall the biggest argument being that it would destroy the other shops in the high street, which in those days offered a cornucopia of family and privately owned outlets, plus the ubiquitous Woolworths, Marks & Spencer, BHS, Curries and Boots.
Well yes, it did indeed turn out as predicted. Slowly at first. Then came out-of-town supermarkets, shopping centres, retail outlets, shopping malls, the internet, online shopping. Sixty years on, the result is evident. Many UK high streets are colonised by empty properties, charity shops, betting shops and cheap outlet chains – paradoxically supported by local ‘convenience’ versions of the big grocery chains, and certainly supplemented by varying amounts of coffee shops, restaurants and hairdressers.
Of course there are honourable exceptions. Ludlow and Truro spring to mind as having many independent shops, but others outside the mainstream still thrive and show that a different path is possible. Lincoln itself has made good progress, and indeed its High Street is now a much more pleasant place for shoppers than it was in the 1960s, due to its being pedestrianised.
Local councils and Chambers of Commerce across the country face the conundrum of how to revitalise the high street. There are no instant solutions, but it does seem to me that we must look to solutions that keep more money in circulation locally and minimise the extraction of money from the local economy. As a simple example, it’s crazy that local businesses pay high rents, business tax and vat, and keep profits within the local community, which are taxed nationally, while an online business can have far lower rents and make profits that are virtually not taxed at all, and that extract money from the community that is being polluted by their many delivery vehicles. Where’s the sense in that as a system?
(Local currencies, such as the Bristol pound, are one way of attempting to address this locally.)
Featured image of Lincoln High Street 1960s from Francis Frith website – an interesting resource