The Plight of the British High Street

A walk through my local High Street tells an all too familiar tale. Nationwide there are hoards of empty units, boarded up shops and ‘To Let’ signs throughout areas that not too long ago were bustling retail parades, bursting with shoppers all too willing to part with their hard-earned cash in exchange for items they didn’t need and a feeling of satisfaction with having ‘made something’ of their lives. This has now gone. High Streets are now the domain of businesses with nowhere else to go. Post-Offices, Banks, Estate Agents, Chemists and Newsagents are still there but there are some new kids on the block. Poundshops, Gold Exchangers, Second-Hand buyers and sellers are nestled in between the ever-expanding franchised fast-food outlets and the odd independently owned, overpriced boutique, selling worthless tat to people with more money than sense (or taste).

It’s very easy to put this down to the current financial hardship being felt by almost everyone not a professional footballer or hedge-fund manager but I think this is a much deeper shift in attitudes toward shopping and town centres. It is true that the global economic downturn has put extra pressure on small High Street shops but the emigration of major retailers to ‘out-of-town’ aircraft hangers in retail parks on motorway junctions is not new, I remember them starting in the eighties. Equally, the influx of service providers and discount stores to fill the void left by the large retailer’s exit is a change that has been progressing slowly for decades, the recent recessions have merely accelerated the process.

Blame for the decline in High Street popularity is also put on local governmental decisions to allow these lager superstores to operate far enough outside town centres to benefit from cheaper land and rates while still being near enough to them to be in active competition. This could be a valid criticism given that it is local authorities who set both the business rates paid by the units in the town centres and the parking rates for their customers but while I accept that much local governmental policy is misguided, I cannot understand why any council would be driving business out of the town centres while facing cuts to their own budgets. Also, dropping rates to keep some shops in business would amount to a subsidy, propping-up an otherwise unprofitable enterprise, something I do not believe any local authority should be doing with private sector businesses.

Another factor needing to be taken in to account when assessing the situations discussed above is the rise of online shopping. Online retailers have seen well above inflation growth year on year regardless of recession. People are becoming ever more comfortable buying things online and retailers ever more sophisticated in their marketing and delivery strategies. Gone are the days of worrying about being stuck with an item you don’t want because the picture online made the product look nothing like the reality and not being able to return it. Delivery times can often be set at the time of order to fit in with one’s lifestyle and the rise in online competition has forced most retailers into abiding by an easy returns policy. Christmas shopping in December used to be an absolute nightmare but I wouldn’t know now as I haven’t done any gift shopping in actual shops for years.

Changes in the local business landscape should not be seen as all negative, the decline in daytime activity in town centres has been counteracted by a rise in nightlife as pubs, bars and restaurants flourish, offering people a temporary escape from the depressing news headlines and the even more melancholic soap-operas or reality TV epidemics currently offered up as weekend night-time entertainment. It’s not just in the darkness that these changes in activity are evident, the empty units are nearly always near offices, colleges and schools, making them attractive to the glut of deep-fried poultry providers with near identical names (normally based on an American State), offering their fare to any who are unaware or uncaring of the resulting arterial damage its consumption entails.

At root, all these changes are not the result of policy change or government ideology, they are the result of a basic economic model. Give people choices and they will make them, if you are able, as a retailer to offer a more popular option than your competitors you will be more successful. High Street shops are there not as an aesthetic distraction as you drive through on your way to the cheaper and more convenient superstore down the road, they are there as businesses to make money. One cannot have the convenience of local shops while being disinclined to use the regularly, if you think that the superstore is causing the decline in your local high street, you are wrong. It is you, the users of your local shops who have the collective power over their success or failure. As the saying goes: if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it.

Even more so than with politicians, we don’t just get the High Streets we deserve, we actually get the High Streets we want, even if we don’t know it yet.

Thanks for reading

Rowan

P.S. – Wow, when I had the original thought for this post it was supposed to show my positive feelings towards the changes in our town centres and how I wholly embraced them but having read it back it’s incredibly negative. I don’t actually feel the way I come across, I quite like the idea of service based High Streets and shops being conveniently out-of-town but I suppose I’m too grumpy to get my positivity communicated in a comprehensible way without appearing sarcastic!

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You’re only fat because you want to be

The first thing some of you will have done when you see the title of this piece is have a quick look at the photo, you will see that I am clearly carrying a few extra kilos and may well think that I’m not really in a position to discuss obesity. I would have to counter that despite having lost several kilos since that photo was taken I know exactly what has caused my weight gain, me.

That is the point of this piece, however much you hear people say how unfair it is that some people can eat what they want but never gain yet they only have to ‘look’ at a sausage for it to go straight to their hips, you know that by ‘look’ they mean eat and eat and eat. Nobody gains weight by eating less that their body uses and nobody can lose weight without eating less than their body uses. One cannot escape from these simple facts. Whilst it may be true that not all our resting metabolic rates are the same and there are a minority of people for whom medical problems may make weight control more difficult, I still feel no sympathy. If you’re gaining weight you need to eat less or do more, there’s no getting away from that simple formula, no ‘magic bullet’.

It seems to have become very fashionable in the modern world to blame a person’s weight, not on his or her love of pies but on the manufacturer or server of the pies. This has led to more and more information on food packaging and now on many chain restaurant menus. This can help to an extent, one may want to know whether to have the triple quarter ponder or the double-decker mega-burger but if you’ve already decided on a burger before you get to the restaurant, you can’t be that bothered about the calories to start with and does anyone really go to a burger restaurant and have a salad?

The people to whom this information is intended however, will pay no notice whatsoever to any labelling. Here we arrive back at the title of the piece, you’re only fat because you want to be. Of course I don’t think that many people actually think ‘I want to be fat’ but when given the choice of being fat and stuffing your face full of pies & chocolate every day or controlling your weight by a combination of self-control, unwanted exercise and a diet consisting mostly of vegetables that my even my dog turns his nose up to, it’s not surprising that many of us find the fat choice more appealing.

Most of us seem to know, however, what the right choice is and stop ourselves from making the wrong choices too often, either by filling our fridges with fruit & veg or joining a sports team to pressurize ourselves into regular exercise. Many people seem to have decided that they don’t want to be fat, that they will do their best to take the tough choices, that they want to be healthy later in their lives. It isn’t difficult though, to find those who’ve decided not to do this, they’ve decided to go for the easy, short-term option. To eat now, pay with your health later. It would appear that these people have never had so much help to make the right choices, from ‘traffic lights’ on pizza boxes & cake wrappers to slimming clubs or celebrity diets. Yet still they’re all around us, mega-fatties everywhere, blocking the entrances to kebab shops, overflowing their seats on buses & trains and most importantly clogging up the NHS which we all pay for.

I know some of you will now be thinking that I should leave these poor people alone, that I wouldn’t want to be in their position so I shouldn’t judge them. Despite not wanting to be fully in their shoes, most people would want to be able to eat whatever they want whenever they want with no feeling of guilt or remorse, with no thought to the future whatsoever. Maybe this is what makes these sort of people so detestable. We live a responsible lifestyle, working hard and paying our taxes toward a health system that treats those who have been irresponsible their whole lives without a care for the future until they develop type 2 diabetes or heart disease in their 30s. The biggest problem I have is this lack of foresight is that many of these people seem to show contempt for the very concept of looking after their bodies, deciding that it’s just too hard. We all treated our bodies poorly when we were younger but giving up or cutting down on things you love is not as hard as is commonly perceived, it’s all about how much you want it. Will power is just about desire, if you really want it, you will be able to do it. I managed to give up smoking without too much difficulty, my wife managed to lose about 40 kilos (about 90lbs) over the course of about 2 years by joining a slimming club. There’s nothing special about us, we just wanted to do it and did it.

It may not be much consolation but evolution has fine-tuned your body to be fat in the modern world. Imagine, if you will two tribes in Africa many thousands of years ago. One tribe loves salad, the other loves meat. The human brain needs huge amounts of calories to keep us alert and to get these calories, the salad eating tribe essentially have to become grazers, eating nearly all of their waking time. The meat-eating tribe will be able to get their calories much quicker and have more free time to do other things like procreate. More of the meat loving tribe’s genes and culture will be passed on to the next generation etc. All animals are genetically programmed to choose the higher calorie option of any food choice given to them, storing any excess as fat to help cope with leaner times. Here’s the problem, modern farming and food transport techniques have ensured there are no longer any lean times for us in the developed world, we have to find a way to beat our nature in order to insure our health. Choosing against your preferred food option and doing unnecessary exercise are obvious ways to do this.

But in the end it all comes down to how much you want it.

Thanks for reading

Rowan

Any comments welcome, I’ll try to answer as many as possible

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