Greengrocer's shop, Deal, Kent England. Image shot 1912. Exact date unknown.

Ghost towns: how Britain's fading high streets kill local communities

As shops shutter, it is not only local economies but the sense of place and community that is imperilled. In an era of online retail, how can the high street fight back?
June 13, 2019

Every autumn, Lewes in East Sussex assumes the aura of a ghost town. Take a dusk stroll through its hilly streets, and thanks to a “lightbox project” drawn from the archives of Edward Reeves—a local photography studio with claims to being the world’s oldest—window-shopping becomes an exercise in peering back in time. In dozens of storefronts, black and white images going back over 150 years are illuminated, and glow with unnerving vitality in or near to the spots where they were originally taken.

It isn’t just the wattage of their backlit presentation that makes these pictures seem so alive—nor the frank stares of people who’d yet to learn to hide behind smiles when faced with a camera. It’s the bustle. Even in unpeopled shots, the shops exude an orderly busyness, like ironmongers Mence Smith, captured in 1925, when it occupied a corner building on the High Street. Every inch of its frontage is crammed with merchandise, from the tin pails at the very top, beneath its gilt-lettered sign, to the spades dangling down onto the pavement. Or take the couple posing in 1953 outside Jenkins and Stripp Newsagents. He’s wearing a baggy suit, she has a sporty jacket that doesn’t quite jive with her sensible shoes, but they’re upstaged by the dazzling array of publications on offer that stretch beyond the shop front and out of the frame. There’s not a customer in sight, yet you know this business is thriving.

Much changed in the world of high street commerce over the course of the several lifetimes that these images span and in the generations since, and yet there’s one disquieting contrast between those various “thens” and now. Because even here, in the affluent Home Counties—and in a town that lures both deep-pocketed Londoners and tourists ready to spend—the stilling effects of retail’s decline cannot be missed. To be clear, Lewes is a town that is atypically flush in the national scheme of things. It’s so easy to parody that if you wander into Waitrose on a summer’s afternoon, you’re likely to spot black-tied Glyndebourne-goers, provisioning their hampers with champagne and French cheese. But nonetheless, up on the high street, the dedicated cheese shop closed down last year and the premises that once housed the town’s off-licence has been empty for months.

Meeting a friend in the town centre for coffee recently, her response to my breezy “How are things?” illustrated the depth of our connection to the local shops. She didn’t tell me about work, or her family, she told me that on the street leading from her house, up past the brewery that gives the town its distinctive scent, a bistro, an ironmongers, and a women’s clothing boutique of 11 years’ standing had all folded in the past few months.

Research carried out by Ian Warren at the Centre for Towns shows that while the decline can be traced back decades, it has picked up its pace in the past 10 years, no doubt thanks to the rise and rise of internet shopping. Although certain areas have been hit far harder than others, the direction is clear: across the country, retail’s employment share fell between 2009 and 2017 in three-quarters of all local authorities. The five areas most impacted were equally scattered: Dartford, Watford, West Lancashire, Nuneaton & Bedworth and Wakefield. As clicks decimate high-street bricks, no region is immune—the relatively affluent southeast included.

More than merchandise

There’s much more to life than shopping of course, and yet in modern communities the bustle around retail is what gives a place its life. And when that liveliness is overtaken by a real and visible sense of decline, anxiety and fatigue take its place. Shopping is what gives our towns their centres, our suburbs their hearts. The shops are our agoras, replacing the churches where our grandparents’ generation might have convened, and the pubs that our parents met in. But now they, too, are closing.

From Wolverhampton to Newport to Huddersfield the picture is straightforwardly bleak, in the south, too, there are grimly hollowed-out neighbourhoods—try southeast London’s farthest reaches or parts of Kent. Try just down the road from Lewes, where Newhaven has lost both its last town-centre bank branch and supermarket. Try, for that matter, Eastbourne, where the opening of its revamped and enlarged shopping mall, The Beacon, at a cost of £85m, has become the final nail in the coffin for numerous businesses on the opposite side of the street.

In 2017, Eastbourne’s shop vacancies stood at just under 6 per cent, half the then national average of 12 per cent, but on a blustery afternoon, the day before its “Sunshine Carnival” this May, shuttered shops on Terminus Road—which runs from the train station to the seafront—included Wonderland Home and Gifts and Vintage café; even Cash Generator, “the buy, sell and loan store,” which you’d have thought might thrive in hard retailing times, has bitten the dust.

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Further along is the expansive and newly empty TJ Hughes department store, which closed in May and which was formerly Dale and Kerley’s, one of four fancier stores in the town in the 1920s and 30s. There were daily afternoon tea dances in its restaurant, and during the Second World War it was used for making parachutes before being bombed. Later it became one link in TJ Hughes, the Liverpool-based discount department chain, which closed 22 branches in 2011. It edged back into profit in 2018, but this didn’t save the Eastbourne store. In its empty windows, signs advertising its café are flanked by A4 printouts, encouraging passers-by to ask long-gone staff (there were around 40 of them) about shop fittings still up for grabs. Across the street is Debenhams, which will close next year, one of 12 branches that are slated to shutter across the region.

According to research by the Local Data Company for the fashion trade bible, Drapers, the southeast is the UK region at the highest risk of chain clothes store closures. In Eastbourne, as in Canterbury, six clothing retailers are at risk of closing within a 3km radius of the soon-to-shut Debenhams, and in Southsea in Portsmouth, nine retail stores could go under within the same radius of their doomed branch.

“Boarded up shop fronts have a significant cognitive effect” —Will Jennings

The loss of these shops is experienced with a keenness that’s disproportionate to its job market impact. The feel of a town is altered. While employees may be able to find alternative work, the loss of shops and the rise of empty units changes our experience of a town centre, impacting on locals’ sense of place and identity far beyond its direct impact on the economy.

“Boarded up shop fronts have a significant cognitive effect,” says Will Jennings, a politics professor at Southampton and co-founder of the Centre for Towns think tank. “There’s a palpable sense of decline, that things are a bit broken, that the shops we saw as children are no longer there. We can be nostalgic for this sense of lost identity.”

Indeed, in their absence, shops exert an oppressive presence. Being on streets with boarded-up units and empty windows becomes less pleasant, and, for those with cars and computers—which is to say those who are not frail and elderly or very hard up—they become places to avoid, and so begins the vicious cycle. Elsewhere, short-term fixes like pop-ups only serve to emphasise a sense of impermanence and of a future that’s uncertain.

“It all feeds people’s feeling that things are not as they were,” says Jennings. “There’s an idea that there was a golden era, a previous age in which we had agency and control. That plays out at a very local level.” And of course it is part of the malcontented mood that is palpably seizing our politics.

Chain fail

One of the paradoxes of contemporary retail is that it’s the chains that can feel most local. Remember when Woolworths went under? It was eulogised like a beloved elder statesman. Everyone used it, everyone had a treasured memory in which it featured. Whether it was through buying your first hit -single or stocking up on pick ‘n’ mix to fuel student revision, the chain wove its way into our -collective memory. With parent company Arcadia teetering on the brink at the start of June, similar requiems could soon be sung for Topshop, by all those women—from every class and corner of the country—who passed their teenage Saturdays in that store.

"Remember when Woolworths went under? It was eulogised like a beloved elder statesman"

Even today, wander into your nearest M&S and you’ll still find a cross-section of the local community greater than almost anywhere else. And it’s more than that: national though they are, these stores are not only staffed and patronised by their host communities, they’re claimed by them with tenacious pride. When an M&S goes, it’s “our” M&S.

Marks and Spencer (as it is no longer officially called) in particular is a symbol of the high street, and it’s also one of the most relatable emblems of the economy in general. Along with the biggest supermarkets, its profits and losses, ups and downs make the headlines. Retail giants they may be, but the place of these chains in our daily lives personalises them.

By the same measure, the often higher-priced local shops, with their emphasis on regionally-sourced produce, be it cheese or gin or hand-woven baskets, can feel like tourist bait. They can also seem strangely generic—local has gone global, becoming as -ubiquitous as smashed avocado on sourdough (made with flour from the local water mill, of course).

Similarly, the ecosystem of the high street is far from straightforward. In the days when the chains were still strong, we used to complain that chains drain custom from the small independent shops. But it was the famous names that brought people into the town centre in the first place. For those of us who grew up in rural areas like East Anglia, catching one of the few buses into the nearest miles-away city was a weekend ritual for teens with nowhere else to go. There might be purchases in River Island or Body Shop, perhaps a stop in the café of the local department store, but mostly it was about roaming round the market square, feeling grown up and trying to glimpse future selves.

In Huddersfield, where the departure of the outsize BHS has left a gaping concrete shell, the old Woolworths has been replaced with a pound store. Nearby, the large M&S had stood at the same spot for eight decades, and indeed that retailer’s local history can be traced back even further, in a town which had hosted one of the first off-shoots from the original 19th-century Leeds store. But that finally closed this May. This repeated chain fail has done little for local enterprise: the centre’s covered market, once full of independent traders, is now half empty.

Nevertheless, if one is to search for a glimmer of hope from the tottering of high-street giants anywhere, then it has to be in those local shops that may—in more prosperous places at least—be able to seize the initiative. In the face of the Amazon juggernaut that is crushing yesterday’s giants, the nimbleness and distinctive character of independents probably provides the only hope. As cobbler king John Timpson has said, it’s they who will “reinvent the towns.” Just what shape they’ll take will need to vary from region to region, with imagination and fast-acting local councils key.

Bristol’s Gloucester Road claims one of the longest stretches of independent shops in the country, among them a bakery, gallery and Spanish deli. Being small and quick to adapt has helped them fend off threats from “e-tail,” Anne-Louise Perez, the road’s Business Improvement District Manager told the Bristol Post last year. Without the independents’ pluck, she added, the neighbourhood would fall apart. “The road would just be the A38. It would have no character, none of that diversity of shops and people just wouldn’t want to come here.”

While local currencies like the Stroud or Brixton pounds can help keep spending local, ultimately we need to want to use our local shops, which we will only truly do if we are reminded of what they do best. At their most glorious, high streets are spots in which we can mingle, exchanging pleasantries as well as coins, and seeking advice along with goods. They’re about browsing, about being seduced into wanting things we didn’t know we needed. Think bookshops—or better yet, second-hand bookshops. The purchases we make there come wrapped in narratives of happenstance and serendipity, giving greater meaning to that most basic of human activities: hunting and gathering.

Less whimsically, shop in the neighbourhood, and you’ll come back with titbits of local gossip as well as the pint of milk you ran out for. That will sound frivolous in many parts of the country, but it’s what the shops around the corner nationwide need to emphasise if they’re to survive. After all, they can’t compete with their online rivals on price and range, or the convenience of services like Amazon Prime.

Back in Lewes, closures still seem to be outpacing openings, but the nature of the businesses that eventually fill the empty units is instructive. They tend to be small, independent and niche, often with locally accented wares. There’s a handmade paint company that uses pigments from the South Downs, a natural apothecary whose lotions and potions are made with plants from Sussex gardens, and a bean burger joint whose brioche buns are baked nearby. The area’s online forum, made up of folk who like to think of themselves as true locals, has plenty of fun at the expense of such enterprises but they appear to be staying the course. They have doubtless helped the town’s high street become the nation’s sixth most buzzy and chain-free, as recently judged by estate agents Hamptons International.

In so many parts of the UK, the spectre of the ghost town is all too real, generated not by sepia photographs but by fly-posted plyboard and darkened doorways obscured by thickets of wind-blown rubbish. Though Lewes’s green shoots may seem distant enough in Huddersfield as to belong to another era, its embrace of localism—whatever shape that takes—seems the only plausible enticement away from the lonely ease of internet shopping. We need our high streets as much as they need us but it’s going to take more than nostalgia to make us do what’s needed, and start putting our money where our hearts—and those of communities—are.

We can all see changes on the high street, but the Centre for Towns has come up with a way to count them: delving into back issues of the Yellow Pages. Totting up various types of shops over the decades, banks and butchers are in general decline. But while a café boom has filled many of the spaces in prosperous Cambridge, in Wigan charity shops have had to do more of the work.

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