Not long ago a newsagent on the increasingly dilapidated Hastings seafront told his assistant he might not see out the day. She thought he wasn't feeling well. When, later that afternoon, he pulled down the shutters and handed over her wages she knew better.
The newsagent is one of a growing number of shopkeepers who are simply walking away from businesses that are no longer viable. For some, it's a miserable end to a life's work.
More frequently, the empty buildings in our high streets and town centres are the result of bigger chains going bust, often because they can no longer pay the rent. The litany of names-we-used-to-see-on-our-high-street is likely to grow longer through the autumn.
Every few months the Local Data Company adds another grim set of statistics to chronicle the spread of Ghost Town Britain. This week it published a new leaderboard of dying towns, some with more than a third of their shops vacant. Even Birmingham, where Selfridges in the Bull Ring is the icon of a revitalised city, has 23.8% of shops empty.
A few years ago towns would respond to this sort of challenge by drawing up a masterplan for a shiny new shopping nirvana. Bankrolled with money from regional development agencies, they would bulldoze run-down centres and fill the empty spaces with glass, steel and branches of upmarket chains.
Some got built, notably Liverpool One, the apex of regeneration-by-retail, scattering its magic dust across Merseyside (apart from nearby Bootle, where vacancy rates are nearly a quarter, and Runcorn, where nearly 30% of shops are empty). Others, like Sheffield's Sevenstone and Bradford's Westfield (popularly known as Wastefield), await an increasingly distant upturn.
Enter the Queen of Shops. Mary Portas, famed for turning around dull and fusty shops on TV, has been asked by the government to give our high streets a makeover. For the past few months she's been collecting evidence about the problems they face and what can be done.
The good news is that she's been listening hard, and may be ready to ruffle a few feathers in her report this autumn. Interviewed on Newsnight this week, she hinted that we'll need to think more broadly about the future of town centres instead of simply talking shops, and warned that some high streets were beyond rescue as retail centres.
Both points are right. Things won't get better in the short term (not even with Chuka Umunna's proposed cut in the VAT rate) and the long term looks gloomier still. But that's not a reason to despair. There are better and more exciting ways of thinking about town centres than to pin our hopes on John Lewis or free parking.
The problem is that our town centres are the domain of the property owners and planners, not the public. There's a peculiar poverty of thinking in the notion that the main thing any of us should want to do in town centres is to shop.
Instead we need to re-imagine them as social spaces where we do the stuff we want to do - meet friends, listen to music, learn, entertain and be entertained by our kids, take part in civic life and much more. It is around these social purposes that markets and trading will develop and thrive, while much of our routine shopping is likely to remain in supermarkets or online.
People like the Empty Shops Network and Meanwhile Space are already starting this process of rethinking empty town centre spaces. Movements like Incredible Edible Todmorden are showing how by raising awareness of local food a process of rethinking a whole town centre can begin. The WiganPlus smartcard is pioneering a points system linking local loyalty, public services such as leisure centres and encouragement for volunteering.
Such ideas have been submitted to the Portas review as examples of how we can start to create people-powered town centres. New powers giving community groups a right to buy surplus public property should be bolstered by a 'right to try', giving local groups the right to take over empty spaces for social purposes.
But if this is left to happen in a piecemeal way it won't keep up with the decline of our high streets. We need landlords, retailers, planners and the public working together - because if the public abandon our town centres, they'll bring down the masterplans of local councils, the marketing strategies of the big chains and the investments of the landlords with them.
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