The high street has become something of a political football in recent years, with everyone from Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour to the Daily Mail proposing policies to resurrect what were once much loved spots in our towns. Auburn Langley says cuts to council services and a local democracy crisis means we can’t wait for solutions from on high - we need to organise to save our high streets…
Let's start off with stating the obvious: a high street collapse isn't particular, not to your town, to mine, not to Scotland or Wales. Towns are struggling up and down the country. There are several obvious and deep seated reasons for this: public sector cuts, squeezed incomes, reduced free time, and an industry approach to retail that suits bosses rather than workers.
Changes in lifestyle have played a big part too, particularly the shift towards online shopping. It once a way to pass time – at weekends, town centres would be heaving with gangs and gaggles of teens, mothers and buggies, folk dashing about on their days off. But who needs that stress when Amazon can deliver whatever you want, right to your front door usually within three days? And why go grab food in a restaurant when you can get home delivery?
There are myriad problems with this mode of exchange (although Stella Rooney has written on Conter about how the left could develop an economic strategy that embraces these technological changes), but there are other shifts in our lifestyle that are less discernible just from standing on a high street. The number of adults – let alone children – taking up video gaming as a hobby has increased dramatically over the past decade and our use of solitary entertainment has increased dramatically.
Younger readers would be shocked to find +1 channels were once as good as it got and most of us had to watch the same films and TV shows at the same time. There was a big market for games, movies and similar content, but physical stores can no longer compete with the prices offered by online giants like Amazon. Never mind independent stores, even chains are going under.
This month, I attended a town meeting hosted by Falkirk Greens. The topic? 'Who owns Falkirk?' The panel included Andy Wightman, a Green MSP, author of Who Owns Scotland and The Poor Had No Lawyers, and a strident land reform campaigner. Appearing alongside him were veteran SNP councillor David Alexander and Alex Fleming, the head of Falkirk's Business Improvement District. Considering the title of the talk, I was a little disappointed with the questions posed to the panelist. The main thing attendees would have taken away is that they have no money. There was a hunger for answers: the turnout was high and the audience would have kept asking questions all night, but people were also annoyed at the lack of clarity or ambition.
Falkirk has a large retail park with a high turnover – it's usually busy whenever I frequent it. The shops there are the very same ones you'd have on to visit on the high street: Next, Boots, Curry's/PC World, Frankie and Bennie's, TK Maxx and so on. The difference here, of course, is that instead of picking up a birthday present at Next and then slipping into a local stationary store for a card and then a coffee in a wee cafe, you're more likely to get what you need from the supermarket and head over to Starbucks in the cinema. That's the market we have and it's the multinationals that benefit.
How towns are zoned has significant ramifications for the people who live there. I grew up in a town where the big retail names were enclosed inside a single building as part of the wider town centre. Many of the older generation felt it had usurped their beloved market street, but it was at least adjacent to long running businesses. What’s inconvenient for us isn't necessarily inconvenient for these big companies. Retail parks have been built on cheap land outside of towns and appeal to drivers, but not for those who walk or take public transport. Meanwhile town centres become more and more fragmented.
Political parties of various stripes have proposed solutions – Labour has a five point plan to “rescue Britain's high streets”– but what practical solutions are there for ordinary people in the interim? An inspiring story has come from Dumfries in the form of a community buy out (see Midsteeple below) Taking the idea from islands like Eigg and Gigha, locals formed a community benefit society to redevelop buildings which weren't being used, essentially buying back parts of their high street for public use.
They have a wider plan to take back council buildings too, but in the immediate term they're focusing on the old Bakers Oven, which has been closed for some time. The top floors of the building are being renovated as potential flats. At the street level, the Oven has become a cafe, pop-up kitchen and workshop space for the community. In other words, a multi-purpose venue to cater for a dynamic community. Isn't that what we all need?
This idea of re-purposing high street buildings and converting the tops of them into places to live was discussed at the aforementioned meeting. Many high streets simply empty out their private buildings due to noise issues, maintenance problems and accessibility; upper floors are no longer fit for purpose, with many shops simply using them for storage. Flipping that would be of benefit to the whole area: increased foot traffic would follow and the basic needs of tenants would be met by surrounding shops.
The main opposition to this of course revolves around ownership, with councils heading to bankruptcy. A good chunk of buildings in any given local area will be owned by investors, whether it be individuals or corporations, as part of a larger portfolio of investments. As anyone who has rented a flat or house will know, trying to convince your landlord that your living space needs some TLC usually falls on deaf ears. You'd think looking after your 'investment' and adding value to it would be desirable, but that's rarely the case. It's the same with high street buildings: buildings are sold at market value and in many cases significantly higher – councils “can't compete”.
As mentioned in the introduction, cuts are the key factor and they're as much to do with bureaucracy and misplaced priorities as they are the current government's austerity cuts. Since the 1970s, our local democracy has been gradually eroded to the point where Scotland has according to a recent Common Weal report the worst degree of local democracy in Europe by a wide margin. According to Audit Scotland: "Around 250 burgh, town and county councils – some dating back to medieval times – were swept away to be replaced by 65 regional and district councils and 20 joint boards." The Local Authorities Act meant things changed rapidly: town councils were banished and our local communities changed quietly but rapidly.
Today, there's a huge disconnect between the people who live in an area and the people who call the shots. Whereas town councils could be responsible for up to 10,000 people prior to all these changes, today 150,000 people can be considered one relatively small district. To Conservatives, the centralisation process is a cash saving measure, but it's anything but democratic.
Systematically under funding councils predates the austerity imposed since the 2008 banking crash, but slashes to funding we're seeing year on year in the name of austerity has quickened their death. As a result, councils whether they identify as left, right or centrist in political orientation. There's a conversation to be had about how that's happened, what the exceptions are and where differences lie, but the reality is our councils can't continue in their current state much longer. By extension, nor can our towns; by extension, nor can our high streets.
Local community is what this is all about. Our areas need support and investment, whether it be through what its people produce, the use of services, tourists visiting local sites or the use of parks. If you need something in your local area, or have an idea why not try talking with your councillor? Hyper-local activism can make a difference, whether it be contacting your local councillors or pinning posters on community boards. In truth, the high street as we know it may never come back, but it should at least be vibrant, useful and an asset to people who live near it. Towns have shifted, our needs are different and our ways of living have changed. But change isn't coming from on high – we need to stop waiting for quick fixes and organise to do it ourselves.