Saturday, 13 December 2008

High street blues

Everything must go.... eventually

The British high street is under siege. One of the big news stories of the week in the UK has been the collapse of the Woolworths brand, a name that conjures up fond memories of their childhood for many people. The £385 million debt has finally sealed the fate of the shop chain and an estimated 30,000 jobs. It seems that we are entering another period of huge social change. We've been here before, in a different era and with different types of industry, but the same striking similarities nonetheless come back to haunt us.

During my childhood, i witnessed the final stages of the disintegration of British industry in the North east of England. I remember regularly going to visit my grandparents and seeing a vast army of men leaving the ship building yards at Haverton hill near Middlesbrough. So many men came spilling out of the gates at the end of the shift, that my Dad had to slow the car to a complete stop. It was an awesome sight for a eight year old boy and one I'll always remember. These men lived and worked in the shadow of the countless huge ships they constructed until the yard was finally closed in the early 1980's. After the closure, the yards stood grey and silent like vast decaying monuments to a great industrial heritage. During the early 1990's, i spent a considerable amount of time photographing the ghostly remains of these once busy industrial locations. Only now, some 25 years after they closed, are some of the yards starting to come back into use but with far fewer jobs than before.

Like those shipyards of the early 1980's, my local town is in the grip of decline. Most of it is due to short sighted stupidity of greedy local landlords, poor town planning and/or supermarket expansionism. Now the economic downturn will just add to the problem. The cattle market that brought in Mr Farmer, his wife and the rest of the family, has gradually shrunk over the last decade to a fraction of its size and the town has not compensated for this loss. Supermarkets, out of town retail parks and online stores have all encroached on the retail territory that once was the domain of the market town. Quite simply they are becoming less appealing places to visit, devoid of the variety and character that they once had.

You may have noticed that i've not mentioned the name of my local town. Well the name of the town is irrelevant really. The problems mentioned in this post also reflect the situation of market towns and high streets throughout the UK. My biggest fear is that we end up with towns that are largely bypassed by the public - basically the Woolworths problem but on a much larger scale. Charity shops, cafes and hairdressers already make up the bulk of the shops in my local town. Many shops, including a number of long established ones, have closed during the course of this year and the number of empty shop fronts is becoming embarrassingly obvious. Can the rot be stopped? A tough question to answer but i can't see it improving anytime soon. It will, however, be interesting to see how my local town endures the financial storm over the next year or so.

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