Sunday, 8 February 2015

The decline of our high streets is about more than just empty shops.

It is an unfortunate truth that wherever there is a league table there is a good chance that Stoke-on-Trent will find itself near to the bottom.

That happened again last week when the Local Data Company published its league table for town with the most vacant shops, three of the six towns making up our city placed in the bottom ten.

In Burslem, according to the report, 29.4% of shops are empty, in Hanley its 27.7% and in Stoke 26.6% of shops are standing empty, the national average is 11.8% with towns in the South doing better than those in the grim old North.

Traders across the city called on the council to do more to support businesses in the six town centres, Cynthia Bruce, owner of the Aisle of Brides store in Stoke told the Sentinel that 'rents here are too high' and said that something needs to be done to 'give people an incentive to move here.'

In defence the council drew attention to the £4.1million spent on restoring buildings in Burslem town centre and the £900,000 facelift scheme being delivered in Stoke through a partnership with English Heritage.

Council leader Mohammed Pervez told the Sentinel the 'problems of empty shops affects cities up and down the UK,' and said the council's regeneration strategy is about 'working closely with private sector partners, helping to create the space and conditions for businesses to thrive.'

The decline of the British high street is a tragedy that has been unfolding in slow motion for decades. Everybody thinks something should be done about it; but nobody seems to know exactly what.

That doesn't mean that nothing has been done, just that most of the attempts at revival have been pretty ineffectual if often well meant.

Take the so called 'Portas Pilots', when the government brought in abrasive TV personality Mary Portas in to help revive flagging town centres with, of course, a camera crew following close behind.

The key feature here is that what was going on was a television programme first and a scheme to save struggling high streets from oblivion second, a very distant second at times. In the way of modern television the driving force was conflict and Portas provided this in spades, striding around speaking plainly, or being plain rude depending on your view of such things.

The camera loved it, many of the towns involved didn't, spin the tape forward a couple of years and most are no further forward from where they started and the people concerned have gained little apart from, perhaps, the feeling they have been chewed up and spat out that is common to anyone who has been in contact with the less than magical world of reality television.

The truth is our complacent political class isn't much fussed what happens to the high street, or streets, in towns like Stoke, like an earthquake in China there demise is sad, but too far away to have an impact on their lives. They inhabit a mostly southern world of bijou towns with artisan bakers, a couple of art galleries and a delightful little gastro-pub, a super place to live, if you're rich enough.

There is no sadder place to be than in the centre of a town like Stoke that is slowly dying from a mix of inertia and official indifference. Sadly local government seems no more interested in the plight of the high street than the national variety.

Too many councillors and local government officials have bought into the witless idea that the high street and the small independent businesses that are its core are, like steam trains and fountain pens, a charming anachronism that have had their day. Big chains and flagship malls are where its at; nobody and nothing else makes the game.

You can see evidence of this in the way Mr Pervez and his cabinet have trumpeted the forthcoming arrival of fast food chains Nandos and Frankie and Benny's at the expanded Intu Potteries Centre. The jobs they will bring are welcome in a town where too many people are without work; the corresponding replacement of local character with corporate sameness isn't.

The tragedy for towns like Stoke lies in the fact that to the people who live and shop there they matter for reasons way beyond where they buy their groceries. They inform deep feelings about identity and act as a barometer for the health of our communities.

When they are allowed to wither it is hard not to feel that yet again local people are having something important taken away from them by an elite who never see, let alone have to live with the consequences of their actions.

The lesson of the big crash of 2008 is that people want a society that operates on a more human scale. That's why shoppers are deserting huge out of town supermarkets in favour of the shops on their doorstep, dropping processed food trucked in from miles away for produce grown locally; and why the idea that only London can deliver good governance looks like the real anachronism.

Sadly the political establishment, despite its members boasting a constellation of starred double firsts in PPE from Oxbridge are, again, one jump behind the rest of us. As a result they can't hear the death rattle of the high street because of all the noise they're making about austerity being the only game in town.

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