Five years ago this week Woolworths became the first high street victim of the recession when it went into administration. The closure of such a household name sent shock waves around the country, and not only from children distraught at the loss of their pick'n'mix treats.
As Leigh Sparks points out, though, despite its position as the UK's eighth largest retailer, the writing was on the wall for Woolies a long time ago. The market it served now enjoys the ever-expanding Poundland, with more than 460 stores across Britain at the last count.
Professor Sparks laments the emotional void left by the loss of Woolworths. He makes an important point, putting his finger on the way some retailers can create a sense of attachment that's more sentimental than economic. But of course sentiment doesn't pay the bills.
Without any sense of attachment, though, our towns and high streets quickly become miserable places. Brandon Lewis, the junior minister responsible for England's high streets, declared at a recent event that betting shops, pawnbrokers and fast food outlets were meeting consumer demand and should be considered a sign that high streets are thriving. Perhaps he should be sponsored by Cash Converters. It's hard to imagine comments more wilfully ignorant of the realities of the economic downward spiral of places like Rochdale.
Pawnbrokers and payday lenders congregate in economically shattered high streets for exactly the same reasons that doorstep lenders prey on economically shattered housing estates. These are the predators in Food Bank Britain, leeching on a society that struggles to make ends meet and ensuring their users pay over the odds to survive.
This is why the future of such high streets lies in a very different approach to prosperity. Instead of desperately competing for the spending from enclaves of affluence, high streets need to return economic value to local entrepreneurs and shoppers. This demands access to property at low rent and with business rates set at intelligent levels; it requires active encouragement of local enterprise by councils and chambers of commerce; and it requires community-based networks of trade and exchange that rebuild local loyalty.
For all his warm words about wanting vibrant and viable high streets, Brandon Lewis is unlikely to do more than provide a flimsy fig leaf for their continuing decline.
On the fifth anniversary of Woolworths' closure, it fell to the Pope to offer an alternative to these more-of-the-same mumblings and to the Gordon Gecko philosophy of Boris Johnson. His speech is worth reading for its contrast to the prevailing economic wisdom. Here's one snippet:
'While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few. This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation. Consequently, they reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control.
A new tyranny is thus born, invisible and often virtual, which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules. Debt and the accumulation of interest also make it difficult for countries to realize the potential of their own economies and keep citizens from enjoying their real purchasing power.
To all this we can add widespread corruption and self-serving tax evasion, which have taken on worldwide dimensions. The thirst for power and possessions knows no limits. In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule.'
We don't need the church to run our high streets. As Pope Francis knows, it's got enough baggage to deal with. But the Pope's call to respect and value human beings offers far more to our towns and the people in them than the bland offerings of the likes of Brandon Lewis.Suggest a correction