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!

Capping Benefits Will Not Cause Child Poverty

One of the main stories in the news this week is the government proposal to cap the total amount payable in state benefits to a family with children at a maximum of £26,000 per annum (or £500 per week) and the House of Lords attempts to block this cap. This amount has not been plucked out of the air, it has been chosen because it is the amount of money (after tax) that an average wage earning family would have available to spend. Families receiving out of work benefits to do with disability or illness will be exempt from the cap. Currently, the amount of benefit received by a family is not limited in any way, more children means more money, as do higher housing benefit costs.

The idea of a cap set at a fixed, arbitrary level seems to have strong public support, especially among those working but earning low salaries, who appear to be working to support their families yet find themselves unable to provide their families with a lifestyle that may be available to them if they were not working. However there are sections of society who are resisting having a limit to the amount payable to some families, with their main objections to the bill being that all cases should be assessed separately and that families with high housing costs or large numbers of children in the household should not be punished by the state for being out of work.

Many people (me included) believe that having an income equivalent to that earned in an average working household is quite enough for any family to live on, regardless of size. If a family’s housing benefit costs are so high as to be eating up a huge proportion of their total benefits cap, they are free to move to a cheaper area, that is after all what all working families have to do. I cannot see this being the huge, nationwide problem reported in some parts of the press. London has much higher housing costs than all other parts of the UK and also happens to have the most comprehensive transport infrastructure (meaning the move would be less disruptive) and the most buoyant jobs market (meaning less excuses for being out of work long-term), those claimants living in London may experience most of the problems associated with these changes but also have the most chance of being able to deal with them easily.

I have heard it said that these changes may push many children into poverty. I think this is entirely the wrong attitude to have, the parents of these children need to look at themselves if they are unable to provide what they believe their children need. The government is not preventing them from working and it is not the government’s responsibility to pick up the tab for ever-increasing family size. Most people do not choose to have families they know they will be unable to support, this is called ‘being responsible’. The idea that it is a ‘right’ to have as many children as you like, safe in the knowledge that the taxpayer (you & me) will foot the ever-increasing bill, while the majority struggle to provide our families with what they need with little or no outside help is clearly not ‘right’ or ‘fair’ (incidentally these are the very terms used by those who disagree with me) .

What exactly is the definition of ‘Child Poverty’? The existing social infrastructure prevents all forms of absolute poverty in all but the most extreme of cases. We do not have children starving to death or dying of easily treated illnesses (cases of child neglect excepted) as happens in some countries in other parts of the world. The poverty we are speaking about here is known as relative poverty, measured against other members of the society in which they live. While a family can be judged as being in poverty based on numbers and statistics, when it comes to individual members within a family unit it is not so simple. Not owning a smartphone, iPod or trainers with air bubbles and flashing lights may be a sign of not having much money but does it really mean you are so poor as to be deprived of what is necessary for your general well-being? If judging poverty from a child’s point of view, do the societal norms of the childs immediate surroundings get taken into account? I was lucky enough to be sent to a private school, yet among my peers I was considered relatively poor, clearly not poor when placed in the setting of society at large but given the socio-economic background of the English public school system my family were near the lower end of the income scale. Even in families with a bare minimum of expendable income, children need not go without things they need, as long as all the family do not spend what little money they have on things they merely want. Relative poverty is supposed to indicate when a person has to go without things that most members of society take for granted. I may take for granted being able to turn the heating on or being able to afford to eat meat every day but I certainly wouldn’t put foreign holidays or subscription TV into this bracket.

The fundamentals of this argument over who is to blame for a child’s poverty boil down to whose responsibility you believe it is to ensure a child’s well-being. In the first instance this should surely be the parent’s, I would not imagine many people thinking it a good idea for the state to install surveillance cameras in a home after a child’s birth to monitor the parenting skills on show but most would see it as the state’s responsibility to step in if the care given was seen to be inadequate, abusive or neglectful. It is also the case that it must be first the parent’s responsibility to ensure the well-being of their children. Given that the vast majority of parents manage to provide for their children perfectly adequately, even with many having much lower incomes than the cap under current proposal, any form of poverty or deprivation evident in the child’s upbringing cannot and should not be seen as being caused solely by a change in government policy.

If you have a child who you are unable to raise, stop looking around for others to blame. You are not the only one in your circumstances, others are managing. If you can’t, don’t blame them, or the government, or me. Blame yourself.

Thanks for reading

Rowan

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

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