Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Debating the decline of our high street

Firstly, I am not going to be a diet bore but I have been really chuffed with the words of encouragement for my 'transformation project' both here and on my Instagram account.  Thank you, lovelies.

Irrelevant but pretty photograph of the last cake I baked.  Missing you already.

It isn't easy, especially not as this week I have PMT and am really craving chocolate.  To the point of obsession.  I have a few emergency bars in the house (hidden in various ridiculous places - I found a forgotten Double Decker underneath the potatoes the other day) but so far have resisted temptation.  However, I am currently having a face-off with the husband's Twix that he has rudely left on the kitchen table whilst he watches the football.  Very trusting of him.  Maybe he's testing my willpower.  I'll show 'im.

Keeping my hands occupied with crochet.


Anyway.  I wanted to tell you about the WI.  It was our monthly meeting yesterday and we had a visitor from the county WI House to talk to us about this year's resolution.  Normally, our speakers are local artists, musicians, sportspeople or craftspeople but the WI AGM is at the end of the month and all members need to vote on what we will adopt as our next campaign.  There is just one to consider this year: 'the decline of our high streets and town centres'.   Such an emotive subject and we had a very lively discussion.  

Soldiers in Petticoats!

As a group, our immediate reaction was to support the resolution; we would all like to see an improvement in Northampton town centre.  However, after further debate, we realised that the decision wasn't quite so clear-cut.  If the campaign was adopted, as loyal WI members we would all be expected to make every effort to do the majority of our shopping on the local high street, leading by example.  We would be required to actively call upon local decision-makers to take action to address the decline of our high street.  We asked ourselves the questions:  Did we really want to commit to always using the town centre for our weekly shop?  Often, it is more convenient to shop at the larger superstores that are open all hours and offer a wider variety of products than their high street counterparts.  Can we really do anything about the decline of our high street or is it a sign of the times?  What has caused the decline of the high street?  Not all town centres are grotty and depressing, after all.  What makes Northampton different to, say, Market Harborough or Olney?

It has really made me think.  I do most of my shopping on the internet (my ex Post Lady has become one of my good friends - we bonded over ebay deliveries of china ).  I don't really want to spend my, very precious, spare time wandering around the [frankly, rubbish] shops in Northampton with heavy bags full of stuff when I could have the nice Parcelforce/DHL/Ocado delivery person bring them to the door whilst I stay home knitting, baking and drinking G&T. 

My preferred approach to shopping

However, I do think it is desperately important for every town to have a sense of community and obviously our high street is an important contributor.  I would love for Northampton to be a hive of activity with pleasant shops and cafes, clean pavements and cheaper parking.  What to do?!  Is there anything that we can do?  Anything within our power?  

It was nice to have a good old debate at the meeting yesterday for a change.  I'm attending the AGM on behalf of my WI members and I am looking forward to discussing it further.  I am also looking forward to seeing the NFWI operating in all its glory - there will be 4,000 members there on the day representing more than 6,600 WIs.   I expect to feel very proud to be part of such a worthwhile organisation and, probably, very young.  Yay.  (Part of me, the mischievous part, cannot help but imagine it is a very similar event to that of the meeting of witches in Roald Dhal's book.  Will they all remove their wigs and shoes as soon as the doors are locked?!)

What do you think of the resolution?  Can we do anything to improve our high streets and town centres?  Do you support yours? What would help?  I'd love to hear your thoughts.  

I am going to log off now.  I'm feeling a bit like Mrs Banks in Mary Poppins and want to march about with a WI sash around me singing that we're soldiers in petticoats.  :-)




  1. I think that it's an inevitability that the high street of our memories has been consigned to history.
    We are no longer constrained by the "local" and the "national", whereby we only desire what we "want" from what is available nearby. We are living in a globalised society where we want to buy items that are designed abroad and shipped to specific shops/boutiques, that with the best will in the world, would never be available on every high street. Greengate, Uniqlo, Gabrielle Parker to name but a few....
    I (like you) do the majority of my shopping online. Yes I do my supermarket shopping on foot, but that's because I have to pass 3 of them on my way home from work-convenience.
    I think it is a sign of our modern times that we don't want to waste the precious little free time we have (I don't get home until 6.30pm of an evening) and therefore the last thing I want to have to do is dash around to try and go late night shopping on the ONE evening a week that it exists, or spend an entire Saturday traipsing around more than one shopping centre to try and find the items I want. I want (like you) to have my purchases delivered to my front door/work.
    I don't think "the high street" has to die, but it needs to be re-invented. For example, where I work (and grew up) now has a substantial number of restaurants, coffee shops and charity shops. These are places that you CAN'T have online, and therefore will continue to thrive. There is also a resurgence in ALOT of areas in grocers, deli's, bakeries and butchers. However, cost is always going to be a problem. I know for a fact that business rates and rents keep increasing, and therefore ALOT of these business owners can't afford to run their businesses AND make a profit. So apart from petitioning the local councils to improve this scenario, where can you go?
    So in short..... The high street is not dead, nor should it be, but the high street as we knew it in the past is evolving, and there is no turning back from that.

  2. It is a problem in my nearest town - Ipswich, not that far from Northampton. It seems that some towns are able to flourish and I don't understand why. Our parking is very expensive and we are getting more out of town shops, for example we have a lovely John Lewis out of town built especially, when there are shops standing empty in the town centre. I am like you and no longer shop in town but online, mainly because the town centre isn't a pleasant place to visit any more. Julie x

  3. It's a big problem where I live too, I am a 10min drive from Lakeside shopping center and a 20min drive from Bluewater shopping center and a short train journey from the newly opened westfield shopping center ! Basildon and Grays used to be the main shopping towns both had thriving markets, now they are not pleasant places to go full of discount stores fast food places and estate agents, even Poundland has opened an out of town huge shop in the lakeside retail park ! we lack independant shops, I struggle to buy haberdashery products from anywhere near here other than Hobbycraft,as our local wool shop does not really cater for anything other than bargain price acrylic, as she says there is no demand for it ! I would dearly love to use my local shops but they have neither the range or quality that I can get on the Internet, which does make me sad. I too think that in todays busy world leisure time is at a premium and the internet is a godsend for busy people, but it would be nice if there was some sort of goverment (?) help to turn our high streets back into places we would like to spend our leisure time in and not places to avoid. I'm really looking forward to following how the WI tackle this, Keep up the good work, Mim xx

  4. well your post has made me chuckle for several reasons! Firstly I LOVE the thought of WI ladies described as 'soldiers in petticoats' - I've not heard of that before!Our town centre is a bit sparse on larger shops, just the odd fruiters, butchers and bakers, which is all very useful when you want to do that quick shop when you've nothing but a crumb (or hidden chocolate)for tea. That brings me on to the second bit that made me laugh - hiding choccies! My t'other half is affectionately known as the truffle snuffler as he can hunt out a bar of dairy milk no matter where stashed. My top tip is to actually use an empty Tampax box. He wont touch 'ladies products' even to get to the shampoo, so to teach him a lesson I stashed all the chocolate bars in there - worked a treat too, there was at last a Wispa for me! BH x

  5. Interesting topic, petticoat soldier!

    My hunch is that towns might eventually be faced with having to put their rents to sensible levels because so many units are empty. And then it is my fervent hope that they will fill with local artisans and we will get our fishmongers and decent butchers and bakers back, as well as independent cafes, delis, charity shops and boutiques where the owners are passionate about their products. It is a dream, but the worst case scenario of bland chain stores and empty shops is becoming too depressing. For chainstores, huge supermarkets and big brands lets to to malls and out of town locations or online, and for independents and local quality provisions and eateries, lets go to our local towns? Yes?

  6. I've worked as a bookseller in an independent book shop - I know how good local service can be and believe passionately in supporting my high street, but it does cut two ways. Yesterday, I went into town to buy a pair of slippers for my Dad. Being a man of a certain age, he knows exactly what brand and style he likes and I know an independent shoe shop in our town stocks them. I wanted to support the little guy, so I made a special trip to buy them there. I asked for his size and the assistant went off to fetch them, but when she came back, she told me that they didn't have any in stock, only a half size larger. Well, they are slippers, so I thought It'd probably be fine, but I asked if I could return them if they didn't fit. No, she said, we don't do returns - I could exchange them for you. But you don't have his size, I said. What am I supposed to exchange them for? Stony silence. Shall I just order them on the internet then? I asked. A shrug of the shoulders.
    Come on local shops. If you want us to support you, you MUST meet us half way.

  7. A very interesting debate. I have been running a village shop for over a year now. Intitially I had been looking for a high street location but the rents were just too high for a small business (vintage/gift shop) to be viable. There is no excuse for poor service, but as regards range of products, it is difficult for a small business to compete with the chains or online stores. We have a dedicated gift room in our shop but struggle to source gift stock that we can order in the small quantities that we can sell, therefore we can't provide the choice our customers would like. We do go out of our way to provide a high standard of customer service as this is one thing that we hope will bring return custom.
    Going back to the high street - Marlborough, which is nearby, used to have a Dash (ladies clothing chain) shop. It closed last year because the rent was too high. There may have been more to it, but if a high street chain can't survive, what hope is there for the small independents!

  8. we had a lively and interesting discussion at our W.I in Adderbury. we also had a quizz and map of our high st and surrounding streets in Banbury,and had to find the shops, names given, so few of us shop in town now that the results were very poor.
    Peoples lives today are so busy that a one stop shop is about as much as we can manage. also the shops are larger so hold more stock and the parking is free. I for one am happy with the way shopping has changed.
    love your blog.