You can’t download a tattoo

October 20, 2014

I couldn’t resist responding to Hugo Rifkind’s recent Saturday Times column on the supposed death of the high street. Rifkind makes the frequently-repeated assertion that the butcher, baker and candlestick maker are no more and that, other than tattoo parlours, cafes, gyms and so on, which require a physical presence, that the “age has passed” for the British high street.

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Debden high street, 1960s

Rifkind claims that no one is likely to miss the mundane and prosaic high street stalwarts such as Woolworths and Clinton Cards, but – with respect, as I appreciate this wasn’t intended to be an in-depth analysis (and actually I’d dispute there being anything inherently wrong with the prosaic anyway) – the argument is the wrong way around.

As I said in a public lecture earlier this year: Butcher, baker, candle-stick maker, it is simply incorrect to say that high streets are, or ever were about shopping. The point is that historically, the role the high street has played is to bring people together for the entire panoply of non-domestic activities: for shopping, but also for work and leisure, community and religion, pubs and clubs and any other aspect of life that occurs beyond the four walls of one’s home. Rifkind writes of “the continuing flux and change of the British high street” and here we are in agreement. The cases we have studied from across outer London demonstrate that over a century and half of massive social and economic change their generic role as the centre of the community that connects it to surrounding town centres has not changed, so long as their physical situation allowed them to adapt to the new realities.

One other point: whilst a lot of shopping is moving online, internet shopping is actually creating new physical realities on high streets. ‘Shop and Drop’ sites, which allow people to order online and then collect from a town centre location mean that community functions such as libraries or indeed independent shops, are benefiting from additional footfall. Local distributors working from a small van on behalf of online retailers and online retailers using internet data analysis to work out where to locate distribution depot locations are not dramatically different from the van that used to deliver from our local high street in late 1960s Edgware, or WH Smith deciding to locate its distribution centre in the favourably located Borehamwood. Indeed, now that companies are increasingly recognising that people may prefer to collect their goods at a time and location of their convenience (rather than arriving home to find the dreaded “sorry you were out” postcard), only time will tell whether new activities that take advantage of early evening footfall will emerge on local high streets.

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