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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Students should be grateful for what they’ve got

If you were offered the chance to make a no-risk, high-gain, long-term investment, would you? Here are the terms:

  1. No payment up front, someone else will pay the initial fees, you will be billed on account at a very favourable interest rate (far better than you could even hope to get from a bank) and are guaranteed to have no real-term increase in the cost of your initial investment.
  2. You only have to settle the account after the investment has paid off and is generating an income. In fact this investment will not only pay for itself, it will (if it pays off) give you a raised income for the rest of your working life.
  3. If your investment does not work, don’t worry, you don’t have to pay anything at all. All the risk is being taken by other people on this one.
  4. If, after 30 years, you still haven’t paid off the cost of your investment, don’t worry. It will all be written off and you will be debt free with all the benefits of your investment your to take.

I wish I could get a deal like this from my ISA.

This, then is what all the student protests are about. They feel that the investments should just be given out freely to everyone who wants one. That may sound fair to you but is it not right that those students who go on to have high earning careers pay back some of the capital invested in them by the state? After all, is it not them who will see the most benefit from their investment? Nobody is seriously suggesting that all students will have to pay back £27,000 for their 3 years, only those for whom their time at university has been productive and beneficial to their career. Even with a degree, many students would struggle to get a job paying more than the £21,000 a year cut-off with no experience in their chosen sector, meaning they would be paying back precisely nothing. Yeah, really expensive.

 

Lets debunk some myths:

  • What about students from poorer backgrounds who can’t afford the fees?

 As stated above, they won’t have to pay them until they are earning enough to be able to start the repayments. Even once they reach the £21,000 starting point for repayments, the amount being paid back will be tiny, nowhere near enough to cover the full costs. Is paying back £1,000 a year until your early fifties such a huge expense when you will only be billed if you can afford it? Until now fees of over £3,000 a year have had to be paid up-front, surely that is more likely to put off poorer students than the proposed system?

  • What about all the students with rich parents?

 Won’t they have an advantage by being able to pay the fees early and become debt free younger? The current proposals are that early repayment will be possible but will cost you 5% more than the standard contributions taken from a monthly salary. So yes, they will but it will cost them even more, further contributing to the SLC (student loans company) and helping to cover the costs of graduates who have not earnt enough to pay back their fees.

 

The real tragedy of the new scheme has been the systematic mis-reporting taking place throughout the media world and the seeming inability of the so-called ‘future’ (god help us) to find out the truth for themselves. The facts are out there and I cannot see why or how anyone could have even the slightest problem with them, unless they are simply envious of the generation putting these plans in place, a generation who had free access to university. “They had it, why can’t we?” ‘They’ presumably being the MPs running the show. I’ll tell you why, too many people now go to university for the current taxation system to fund them. Hardly anyone went to university 30 years ago, certainly not anyone who wasn’t academically gifted. It must be considered a good thing that the aspirations of an entire generation of ‘working class’ children have been raised to such an extent that they now expect, and are indeed expected, to stay in education until the age of 21. However, the increased costs of educating these people, combined with the costs of supporting them and the loss of their economic input in the workplace between the ages of 16-21 have affected the treasury to an extent that it is no longer viable to keep the old system. A new revenue stream must be found. Although this need not necessarily be directly from the students themselves, if it was from other sources, it would still need to be paid in full by taxation. There’s no getting away from the cold, hard fact that governments have no money of their own. Almost all government funding comes from taxation of different forms, if the government pays for it, we all pay for it. Why should the users who benefit most from the service not pay a bit more than those who benefit less?

One of the positive outcomes proposals I can foresee is the renewal of interest in more academic degrees, especially science and engineering. Why would you pay £27,000 for a degree in ‘History of Art’ or ‘Media Studies’ if it is unlikely to help you in the workplace? There are more degrees awarded in Media Studies each year than there are total jobs in the media nationwide. If you go on to a successful career in another sector your degree costs will still have to be paid back, it must be a better option to choose a degree that endows you with easily transferable skills. True, all degrees give you a certain level of ‘life skills’ that can help you in any job, all the more reason then to ensure your high level of employability by getting as many skills as you can with your degree (assuming of course that your degree is not for a set pre-chosen career path such as medicine or law).

The fundamentals of this argument are that the costs of educating and supporting students throughout their university life will have to be paid by someone. Whether you feel the burden should be spread evenly across the taxpaying public (e.g. NHS) or if you feel the users and beneficiaries of the service should contribute to the costs they create (e.g. Transport infrastructure) is a matter of opinion, unlikely to be swayed by me. What many of the protesting students seem to have missed is the cause of the change in policy. Without having the privileges of university education available to all based on merit rather than family wealth, no change would be necessary. All modern teenagers should be grateful for the wealth of career choices available to them, choices not available during their parents education. You may not want to pay for yourself but don’t confuse having these fees with restricting access.

Remember, it’s a no-lose investment.

Thanks for Reading.

Rowan

All comments welcome, I’ll answer as many as I can.

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