John Harris

Journalist & Author

Our high streets are under attack. We need to fight back | John Harris

It suits big business for people to believe our town centres are dying. But local campaign groups are uniting to defend them

Four years or so it was: from the aftermath of the crash to the arrival of the double-dip recession. Circa 2008-9, there was a mass pang of worry about increasing numbers of empty shops, and the prospect of the UK following the trajectory of middle America – that of becoming a mess of dusty old urban centres and giant out-of-town malls. Now, we seem close to accepting all this as a matter of inevitability – even a sign of progress.

Between January and June this year, the proportion of British shops lying empty increased again, to an average of nearly 15%; the centre of Nottingham topped the rankings with 31% of shops unoccupied, up from 23%. But for those big corporate interests who have staked their money on retail parks, the news was rather different: in those places, the average vacancy figure is a lowly 9%.

From there, it is only a short hop to one of the most alarming beliefs of our time – that the high street has had it, and only charity shops, bookies and coffee outlets can even do business there, along with the supermarkets’ ubiquitous convenience stores. The latter are now spreading at speed into disused pubs, which represents a poetic development indeed: one-time centres of socialising now echoing only to the grim bleeps of self-service checkouts, as Jacob’s Creek, cigarettes and ready meals are ferried home to be consumed in private.

Not surprisingly, the standard explanation for all this takes its cue from the credo of the free market. Britain, it’s said, is so overjoyed with internet consumerism that the old-fashioned shop seems drab – but no one mentions the fact that Amazon pays no UK corporation tax, or that such firms as Play.com, the Hut group and Indigo Starfish use well-worn VAT dodges. Similarly, the dominance of the supermarkets is explained away with reference to convenience and customer service, as if everyone has forgotten about economies of scale, the squeezing of the big chains’ producers, and the fact that they can sell their most attractive lines – alcohol is the best example – at a loss.

“Supermarkets have reflected changes in society,” boasts Sainsbury’s chief executive Justin King, blithely passing over the idea that the reverse is probably closer to the truth. “Where high streets are in trouble it is usually because they are not providing what the local population wants,” he reckons: we ought to be brave enough “to shrink the high street and allow empty shops to be converted for other uses”. How convenient, for him at least.

The truth is that big business has failed us, twice. First, while distant high street landlords endlessly put up rents, the boom years saw the accelerated replacement of independent shops with the chains whose names – Game, Peacocks, JJB Sports – denoted the stereotypical clone town. Soon enough, the same firms became bywords for the aftershocks of the crash – and left behind the retail equivalent of scorched earth.

Meanwhile, though they too have felt the pinch, the supermarkets are as powerful as ever and constantly eating into every area of our lives: this month, Sainsbury’s claimed that their sales of “non-food” goods – flowers, clothes, books, you name it – are growing at three times the rate of food revenues. In town centres or outside them, that points to a pathetically one-dimensional market in which local supply chains collapse we buy everything from the big four supermarkets, and life will suggest a Taste the Difference version of Orwell’s Airstrip One.

Politicians have a fleeting interest in all this, at best. With its eye on favourable headlines, the government commissioned last year’s review “into the future of our high streets” by TV’s Mary Portas, which had plenty of reasonable ideas but was backed with mere chicken-feed (witness the future high street fund, which totalled only £1m), and turned down some of its key proposals – not least an “exceptional sign-off” for out-of-town retail development that was knocked backed by good old Grant Shapps.

Besides, in terms of big policy, the government now follows the standard-issue Conservatism that always defers to big business. The 2011 Localism Act offers neighbourhood development plans which can be enacted at parish and town council level and put to a referendum – a proposal that set some local councillors’ pulses racing, until the government’s laissez-faire revolution of the English planning system appeared to cover such hopes in thick concrete.

Groups have sprung up to defend their towns from supermarkets and, increasingly, big coffee chains. But they ordinarily lose, and then disappear again. In Frome, my adopted hometown in Somerset, we have been campaigning for two years: one company wanted to drop a 40,000 sq ft supermarket (set to be our sixth) on a town centre that has the rare luxury of scores of independent shops; and now new developers have arrived who won’t rule out something very similar. Like all such campaign groups, our biggest weakness is that we’re up against multinationals, with only local resources.

While party politics averts its eyes, this is the chronic imbalance that defines whole swaths of our national life. So, with help from online activist network Tescopoly, we have a plan: to bring concerned people from all over the country to our town. We will then share information and campaigning techniques, debate everything from the supermarkets’ effects on farmers to the effective use of the planning system, hear such speakers as food writer Joanna Blythman, the author of Tescopoly (the book) Andrew Simms and Transition Towns trailblazer Rob Hopkins – and create the beginnings of what some activists believe should be called a “town centre movement”. The event, Independence Day, takes place on 17 November, and as far as we’re aware it’s the first national event of its kind.

The point at which you’re told something is inevitable is the point when fighting it becomes obligatory: before our towns fall into a deathly silence, there is an urgent need not just to talk, but to do something. Anyone, perhaps, for the Campaign to Protect Urban England?

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