Conventional wisdom decrees that internet shopping combined with a general economic decline is responsible for ravaging our town and village centres. Research just published shows that one in seven shops on the high street has closed and this has turned many into ghost towns.
The report entitled 'Too Many Shops', suggests new uses should be found for the properties because they have no future for retailers. The Local Data Company and British Property Federation have found 10,000 shops closed in 2010 and 2011. The theory that recession and online shopping are the cause ignores a critical truth that these civic hubs used to be more than just commercial, they were meeting places.
Last weekend it was my father's birthday and in my desperation to find something that might appeal to a man in his seventies who doesn't crave or covet much in the way of material objects, I bought him a 1960s reproduction telephone. It was a cream coloured standard GPO reproduction, almost identical to the one I remember gracing the hallway in the house where I grew up. It turned out that what I'd bought wasn't so much a telephone as a conversation starter. Knowing my father it is an evens bet as to whether he ever plugs it in, but the conversation was fascinating.
My teenage daughter came along to deliver her birthday salutations to her grampa and couldn't really come to terms with the idea of a family that had only one fixed line telephone between them. Imagine her horror when both of my parents recalled a time when they didn't even have that. My daughter like most of her generation is 'always on' and in constant contact with her social circle. My father has a mobile phone but doesn't turn it on because he doesn't want to drain the battery and "no-one calls anyway". My daughter could not understand how it was possible to have a social life without a mobile phone. "Oh my mother used to go to the shops every day," said my Dad "not to shop really but to meet her friends."
That drive that brings people into a town, who may in turn spend a little every day as a by-product of a desire to socialise, has gone. The shared upheaval that we are facing may be much more fundamental than the experts suggest. An economic bounce back combined with a Mary Portas inspired task force may be not be enough to turn the tide. We need even bigger and better ideas if we are to bring people back together.
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