shop local online highstreets

Are we overlooking the social value of local high streets, town centres and markets?

The Budget has been announced, and there are positive signs of a recognition of the inequities facing small businesses but these inequities generally face all kinds of bricks and mortar businesses that add to the vibrancy of our towns and cities. The announcement of a Future High Street Fund that will look at physical infrastructure is also welcome. My concern is the emphasis in the High Street Fund on changing use from commercial to residential. While there is a clear logic to having housing in and amongst commercial properties, we should tread very carefully on changing use when it could create long term problems for communities.

Understandably, there is always a big focus on economy when it comes to local town centres and shopping districts. But it is the social value these places play in our communities that are as important. The reality is that if local authorities are not able to support a strong eco-system of services, businesses and residents, long term social problems await and are likely to cost a lot more in the long term.

Picture the scene (don’t close your eyes to picture it, obviously)

There is a lady in her 70s, her family have moved away. She lives in a small market town and has done all her life. Just 2 years ago, she enjoyed popping into her local bakers and butchers every day and stopping off for a cup of tea at a local café. Just two years later and her town has lost the bakers and the butcher has retired. The shops that have been replaced are one beauty shop, two hairdressers, two gin bars and the weekly market has simply disappeared. She feels dislocated from a place she has known for decades. She goes out less and gets her shopping from a large supermarket. She doesn’t feel like she belongs here anymore. She knows her lack of social interaction is making her sad. Her doctor has seen a rapid deterioration and knows that loneliness is affecting her mental health. Her lack of mobility is also affecting her physical wellbeing. In a very short time, she will need more social care and she will need carers. Her case is not an isolated one and with an increasing ageing population, we need to look at the role of place and particularly the informal role businesses play in helping to combat loneliness and isolation.

The Office of National Statistics uses the Old Age Dependency Ratio (OADR) which shows 285 in every 1000 are aged over 65. The impact on social care needs is clear to see. But the longer we stay healthy in mind and body, the less soon we are likely to need support. Place plays a vital part in the mix and keeping a healthy high street can support a healthier community. It is why I founded ShopAppy* with a vision to support better places to live, visit and work.

It’s not only older people who suffer when shops and businesses close. BIRA acknowledges in its top ten reasons to shop local that long lasting friendships are made with shopkeepers. I see it in the conversations between local retailers and local families when I shop local.

Local groups also find it difficult to continue when businesses close. Local shops, cafes and craft businesses are often the hub of local events and gatherings, from pottery, scrap-booking, floristry, books and more. Local businesses also tend to support local activities in other ways providing finance, shelf space, local giving schemes or prizes. The ACS report for 2018 states that 81% of local convenience shops engaged in some form of community activity in the last year. If local shops are not supported to thrive, community groups struggle and either close or look to local authorities to help. If local councils can support the businesses to thrive, then these all-important and often ignored services can continue to help communities to connect.

It isn’t just the community and social role businesses play in community, mental health and wellbeing that is important. It is also the sense of entrepreneurship and opportunity that reduces when a town centre begins to lose its commercial heart.

without investment in infrastructure thatsupports commercial rather than replaces it, the future could get a whole lot more hostile for communities as well as businesses longer term.

According to a recent report by the RSA, retailers in the UK employ over 3 million people and retailers are “particularly grounded locally: they rely on local populations for customers and staff”. Spending locally has been found to provide a significant contribution to local economies – some 63p in every £1 according to the FSB supporting local supply chains, more businesses, more jobs.

Once a town experiences a loss of attractions and enterprise, other employers suffer too. In one district, a National Health Service struggles to recruit, as staff don’t want to live and work in an area where there appears to be “nothing going on”. As well as bearing the financial burden of unemployment, local authorities may similarly fail to recruit in places which appear unattractive to live and work. Lack of skilled labour means reducing investment and the decline accelerates fast.

It isn’t only the lack of employment that presents a problem. Once decline sets in and local authorities cannot support their communities, there is often an associated rise in anti-social behaviour, crime and poverty. Once again the cost to communities as well as the public purse increases.

In spite of the social costs, there is little to no investment in retail from the public sector. Cash-strapped local authorities are struggling to meet their short-term obligations let alone the long term needs of their town and city centres.  Problem is losing these businesses who are performing unofficial and informal supporting mechanisms will create long term problems.

The economic loss to places is one thing, but it is the social loss to our communities that will have the far-reaching consequences.  It is time to start addressing them. This Budget is a start, but it does not go far enough towards rates reform for a wider range of services and simply shrinking the commercial spaces is very risky. These are complex problems and they need collaboration, reform and big picture thinking. Our businesses and our places need infrastructure to be maintained and to grow. It can seem like we are operating in a hostile environment for retail but without investment in infrastructure that supports commercial rather than replaces it, the future could get a whole lot more hostile for communities as well as businesses longer term.

*ShopAppy is helping to support towns by mixing clicks and mortar, enabling businesses to showcase what they offer and to sell their services together in one place online to customers most likely to use them in person.  We can build sustainable customer bases for businesses, by diverting online spending to local spending to create better places to live, work and visit. See it in action here or see what BIDs think here and our mission

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