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What will become of the High Street?


That’s what passed through my mind as I walked from Sutton station to the venue for a talk on the John Lewis Partnership, whose history I wrote in 2010. One side of the pedestrianised main street I walked down contained nothing but cafes and takeaways, nail bars and beauticians, betting shops and a walk-in casino, charity shops – and a single bank branch. I was told it was the last one remaining: the rest had become coffee shops. I checked my own high street in East Finchley. There the banks had become coffee shops too, but with one exception, a payday loans outlet had replaced one without me noticing. I suspected it was the same all over the country. A steady decline that left people wringing their hands but taking no action. What can we do?

That weekend I set myself to track my local shopping centres, East Finchley and Muswell Hill. I traipsed round them recording current shops’ usage, and used the Internet and two local archives to build up a table showing how shopping outlets had altered since before the war. Then while I was doing it, a report came out from the Royal Society for Public Health which examined the ‘health’ of Britain’s high streets – 146 London boroughs and 70 of the largest shopping centres in the country. I have a quarrel with their scoring method, but there’s no doubt that seeing Edinburgh at one end of the scale and Grimsby at the other surprises nobody (and affronts the people of Grimsby). In London the two best and worst are in the same borough, next door to mine in Haringey. The best-ranked is the aforesaid Muswell Hill, the worst Seven Sisters/West Green Road. Does that do any more than reflect their comparative wealth, and make Muswell Hillites feel smug?

It does: they too should worry. The inexorable rise of Internet shopping has intensified a trend begun a generation ago with out-of-town supermarkets and shopping centres. If local councils take no action, shops selling goods will dwindle while those selling services will thrive. Is this a bad thing? It depends. It’s pernicious if it leads to a loss of a sense of community. Here in East Finchley our library’s manned opening hours have reduced to just 16 a week – libraries are soft targets in this Age of Austerity – and it’s sliding inexorably into disuse.

So I’ve starting a pilot to look at my local area in north London, getting older U3A members who are long-term residents and others not in the U3A, to meet at a ‘recall’ session. The aim has been to spark memories off each other as they mentally ‘walk’ the old streets, with the aid of maps and photos. We’d then extend it nationwide, offering an approach to any U3A that wants to take it up, do the same, and campaign for ways to halt the decline. Retired people have time and energy to spare, so what better outlet than to attempt, not to ‘preserve’ their streets but to re-invigorate them, finding ways of reviving a sense of community, rather than let austerity, high rents, and the law of the market gradually destroy it.

By Peter Cox

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