Wednesday, April 2

The Death of the High Street

The following article was published in The Northern Echo today.

Peter Troy first campaigned 24 years ago for better and free car parking in Redcar. Following yesterdays launch of a campaign against parking charges in four of the regions principle market towns, he predicts the long, slow death of our independent retailer and of our towns unique character.

The English Traditional High Street is in its death throes.
By Peter Troy
Once, no two towns were the same. Their high streets boasted a range of colourfully charismatic independent shops offering unique goods and a unique take on life. Nowadays, all high streets look identical, boasting only bland links in national chains selling the same stuff that can be found in any town anywhere in the country.

Anywhere from Land's End to John O'Groats, the length and breadth of the land, and as with motorway service stations they all look alike. In fact, they always remind me of that song by Pete Seeger, Little Boxes only these are big boxes made out of ticky tack.There are many causes of this, from the rise of the motor car to Prescottian planning policies to the multi-nationals own aggressive attitudes of selling items below the cost of production, bullying small suppliers and paying them late.

United, they mean that many once vibrant and pleasant town centres are withering away due to the corporate concrete constructions in out of town sites that now form a principle part of our mundane shopping lives.

The independent retailer is being forced to the point of extinction by the ever growing retail park which always inevitably includes an even bigger supermarket.

But the death of the small shops that once dominated our market towns is in no small part aided by the draconian and expensive parking charges collected by our local councils.

As any retailer will confirm, plentiful easy car parking is the life blood of a successful business. This is one of the reasons why the out-of-town parks are so popular. The developers tarmaced over great swathes of green fields to provide plentiful parking which is free and so it is easy. You dont have to feed the parking meters and the council coffers for the privilege of stopping there instead, you trip happily inside and feed the profits of Tesco, Sainsbury, Morrison and so on.

The Commission for Integrated Transport recently confirmed that the lack of parking charges at shopping centres such as Meadowhall, Sheffield, and The Metro Centre, Newcastle, are contributing the decline of the High Street, as shoppers abandon town and city centres.

In 2007, an all party group of MPs estimated that by 2015 there will be no independent food retailers left on the high street.Now you would have thought towns which have bucked the trend, which still have high streets of individuality and character, which have had the foresight to keep free parking, would do their utmost to preserve the bargain which has proven so attractive to shoppers.

Not Hambleton District Council. It wants to raise 450,000 a year out of the pockets of its own shoppers by putting parking charges on the most successful market towns in the area. Itll charge 1.50-a-day in Northallerton and Thirsk, 1 in Stokesley and 50p in Bedale.Northallerton has two very successful markets on Saturday and Wednesday, Thirsk on Saturday and Monday, Stokesley on Friday, and Bedale on Tuesday. These towns attract people from a very large rural area to shop. There is also a large tourist influx to the towns during the summer, and during the winter a substantial exodus of people from nearby towns such as Durham and Darlington who want to escape the bland homogeny of their high streets.

Don't think that just a few cafes and a load of charity shops will bring them flocking in! The view from our high streets is indeed grim. In 2008 we have a credit squeeze, the increasing cost of fuel adding to the increasing costs of everyday items despite our dear government telling us otherwise and the Chancellor increasing duty on beer, wine and spirits on an already hard hit licensing trade.

Things could not be worse for the independent retailer unless they are in North Yorkshire where the council seems intent on riding roughshod over local retailers opinions.

Lewis and Cooper in Northallerton is perhaps the quintessential example of an independent retailer. It has been providing an individual range of high quality produce much of it locally sourced for well over a century. It has also been providing customers with a reason to come to Northallerton town centre.

But now Lewis and Cooper has withdrawn its sponsorship from Hambleton councils food awards. Angela Shuker, manager of the Northallerton store, said in a letter to the authority: "We now feel that the time has come to withdraw this support and are asking all other business in the town to do the same, as you are threatening all our livelihoods with the introduction of car parking charges to Northallerton, Thirsk, Bedale and Stokesley.

"We would have liked to have thought we could all work together as businesses and council for the good and benefit of the district, but it appears that our views are just being swept under the table."

What hope has the independent retailer when even its own council wants to put the final nail in its coffin?

Though one has to be careful of the term "stopping the march of the supermarket", we need a vibrant free market economy with as few controls as possible. Putting a tax on parking is like introducing a very expensive control on those retailers who can least afford it. It is beyond comprehension.

North Yorkshire high streets are broad and wide for the putting out of stalls and are dominated by their old town halls which were placed so that a few controls could be kept on the most unscrupulous of traders
But now the soul and the heart will go out of those traditional, vibrant high streets as the shoppers will go to the out of town superstores. The independent retailer will become a thing of the past and the mega-supermarkets will have won the day with the aid of the local authority.

Peter Troy was chairman of the Darlington Branch of the Federation of Small Businesses from 1999-2005.

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