London, and the rest of the UK, has changed a lot in my lifetime. When I first explored London, the BT Tower was the tallest building in London. St Pauls Cathedral and Battersea Power Station were amongst the ten tallest buildings. Today the BT Tower is but the tenth tallest, and St Pauls is only another skyscraper or two away from being pushed out to 40th. Pedants might want to point out that in the 60’s the BT Tower was called by a different name. But they’re wrong. Until the early 1990’s, it’s very existence was in fact a big secret. Shhhh.
I remember going to street markets with my grandmother in Greenford. Shopping was done on a daily basis back then, by many folk. She’d get fresh fruit and veg from a stall, come rain or shine, whether we be freezing in a cold north wind or frying on a hot summers day. The High Street was the centre of all life, and the centre of that was the Post Office.
The Post Office, and Royal Mail, are suffering. Maybe terminally. So is the High Street. Every day shops shut, many of which are boarded up and remain so. Ghost towns of enterprise. Today the giant supermarket has sucked up the family shopping trade, which is done on a weekly basis. Out of town retail parks are the place to go. This is the direction that business has moved in. It is more cost efficient. There are fewer limitations that a company has to suffer with the fixed infrastructure of the old fashioned high street. The trend was set many years ago now by the creation of huge parks full of industrial units to let that enabled businesses to move to appropriate locations with the space and freedom to develop.
So is the High Street dead? Has the final post sounded for the Post Office. Yes and no. Actually, no and yes. The Post Office is both an icon and a relic. It’s just waiting for the final shot to put it out of its misery. It seems to me that whilst the efficiencies of capitalism created the new retail sector, they failed to deal with what was left behind. Sure, coffee chains have moved in, along with legions of bars, wine shops, trendy hairdressers and burger joints.
But that’s not going to save the High Street. The infrastructure is there ready for a revival. Most towns have central public transport hubs able to get shoppers and visitors in. There are ideas and plans afoot. Even Mary Portas has put her tuppence in to save the High Street.
I have my own ideas. Firstly, some High Streets are not worth saving. Convert them to housing zones. Be done with it. Secondly, some High Streets are too big. Downsize them, and use the saved space for car parking and housing developments. We have a serious shortage of housing in the UK, and a serious oversupply of High Street retail stores. Thirdly, reduce the rates and taxes that shopkeepers pay. They’re being squeezed out of existence by ridiculous costs. What’s the point of a guy opening a shop that costs thousands of pounds a month to sell good that he could shift online for a fraction of the cost? These are all common sense ideas.
But the killer plan has to be in changing what the High Street is about. I love the markets I visit when I go abroad. In Mexico, Paris and Budapest I’ve been to some terrific markets, indoors and out. Just please don’t fill them with the market equivalent of Poundland. We need local produce. High quality stuff. Hand made stuff. Fun stuff. Turn shops into fancy markets. Give licenses for them to spill out onto the streets.
Give us entertainment too. Outdoor ice rinks. Outdoor cinemas. Bring back the band stands and get some mariachis in! Make it classy though. We don’t need another wasteland created by gangs of obnoxious youths. We need smaller high streets that are more focused and that can be fun for all the family. Maybe then they will return to being the heart of the community once again.