Look along any high street In Britain, especially after the 5.30pm closing time for most UK retail stores and the view is largely bleak. There is a “sameness” involved in the types of big name shops you see and a similar amount of dereliction as well. Sadly many properties are closed permanently and boarded up; there is a plethora of charity and coffee shops and small independent stores are a rare commodity to find. Pubs if they have managed to survive high business rates and rents tend to be open for business.
Recent news of the difficulties House of Fraser and Debenhams have endured has sent shock waves through the retail sector. John Lewis has admitted a reduction in their profits as well. With such big department stores “feeling the pinch” it’s a worrying time for the little shop on the corner (if such a thing exists anymore).
Say what you like about McDonalds and Wetherspoons pubs, but they can offer a ray of light on the high street. They offer a reliable, quick, consistent menu and usually dependable service wherever you go, and are normally open quite late into the night. Take them away and a place like Crewe town centre is immediately “dead”. Look along the main road in Stoke after 5.30pm on a week day and you see boarded up premises, charity shops closed for business, some takeaways not yet open, a bingo/games arcade and the Wetherspoons pub lights shining brightly, offering a refuge from the bitter winter weather. In nearby Hanley, the main thoroughfare between the bus station and the relatively new cinema/restaurant development behind the Potteries Shopping Centre is closed for evening business. The exceptions are McDonalds, Wetherspoons and some other smaller pubs. There are a few places to eat dotted randomly around in the direction of the theatre, if you know where they are. Many of these establishments have opened in various guises only to close fairly quickly. It’s quite a walk from the bus station to the cinema/food court and then onto the theatre. So the well known fast food chain and pub both situated closer to the bus station and theatre, offer the only quick way of getting an “easy on the pocket” meal before a show.
The bus station in Crewe town centre is in a somewhat dilapidated state and all the shops backing onto it have closed. Even charity shops with 25/30 years of business in the area have gone. The desolate air isn’t helped by the reduction of buses using it after shop closing times due to outlying areas suffering transport cuts. The whole site has been subject to redevelopment speculation for years, and I think work was finally due to begin this summer. The promise I believe is a big retail/multi cinema/restaurant complex, but of course nothing has happened yet! In January 2018 the Wetherspoons pub closed and McDonalds was gone by Easter. Suddenly my late night refuge after doing hospital radio shifts (pub), and reliable eating joints before/after events were gone. Having tried three different places to eat at various times of the week and day, I know how bad things are in Crewe. During a shopping trip on a weekday afternoon my lunch order was forgotten, and I was sitting beside the till! In two other places I did get fed eventually, but almost missed a football match and theatre meet and greet, despite ordering 2.5 hours before the event. Having spoken to other theatre goers they had experienced similar problems around the area in different establishments. The Lyceum theatre does have a small restaurant inside, but the catering isn’t always available for performances. So the whole area is desolate once the big coffee shops and Subway close (by 6.30pm), with only some pubs and Asda open late. People have no doubt already changed their shopping patterns since shops like BHS folded and M&S moved to a retail park, and it will take a lot to bring them back into the town centre. I’m not sure if the new development (if it happens) will be enough of an incentive.
It’s much the same scenario around the country, with more and more shops either relocating to out of town retail parks or simply closing altogether. Of course this means that the choice people have is vastly reduced, as shopping options are minimised and access to a car becomes a necessity. Inevitably this does mean that towns will develop that downtrodden look and air of desolation. Perhaps if more people actually LIVED within the vicinity of the high street things could be improved.
In saying that however, a report out on November 2nd suggested that “unhealthy high streets” can reduce life expectancy by about 2.5 years! Stoke-on-Trent ranked fourth worst in the areas surveyed (70), which I’m not surprised about, but I think Crewe is far worse. Libraries, pharmacies, health food outlets, coffee shops and pubs (for sense of community) gave a higher ranking, whilst betting shops, tanning salons and fast food outlets gave lower scores. Again not surprising, yet a distinct sense of wealth or lack of it comes into play here. When you look at the highest ranked areas Edinburgh comes out top, with Canterbury, York, Brighton & Hove and Cambridge all in the top ten. Many have a thriving tourist industry and/or are university cities. Knowing some of these top areas have quite impoverished districts makes the report somewhat skewed. So not everything is quite as it may seem, but what is indisputable is that the British High Street is down at heel and in need of help.