The coming death of the “high street” – and does it matter?

Embarrassingly, it was only when I initially lived in London in 2007 that the concept of “the high street” really twigged; growing up in Penrith, New South Wales, the fact that our main street happened to be called “High Street” was until that point meaningless. In the UK of course, amongst London’s varied boroughs and municipal areas and certainly further afield across the countryside, “the high street” really does mean something to people. In fact, it means a lot. It means so much to heartland British voters that the Cameron Government commissioned celebrity retail consultant Mary Portas to conduct a review of the state of “the high street” and report back, which she duly did in December 2011. Since then, the government has not exactly leapt to implement the recommendations offered up by the so-called “Queen of Shops”, but to be fair, it has had some other rather pressing fiscal and political matters on its hands so far in 2012.

The picture painted by Portas, needless to say, is not a rosy one. The charm of the traditional high street, with its local, independent shops and offerings is disappearing, and with it, the whole concept’s raison d’être. High streets across Britain are increasingly being peppered with failing or vacant stores, their essential uniqueness incrementally crushed by the omnipresence of large retail companies and supermarkets. If you are going to do your weekly grocery run at the local supermarket, why not go to the local satellite mega-market with its colossal car park, rather than struggle through the car-parking nightmare of a traffic-clogged main street? Better yet, why not do your shopping online and save on petrol and indeed energy? Increasingly in the UK this is proving an attractive option, as major supermarkets Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose and e-businesses like Ocado and Amazon offer lower prices and a bigger range that any local bricks and mortar store can manage; often with free delivery to boot. Thanks to the latter, nobody much is buying music, books or even computer games from their local any more: iconic chains HMV, GAME and Waterstones are all struggling for their corporate lives. A recent Deloitte report suggests that up to an astonishing 40% of shops on the “high street” could close in the next five years.

The local retail experience has in fact been more dramatic and more pronounced than in Britain; in most Australian metropolitan suburbs there is no “high street” to speak of, at least in the British sense of the term. The domination of the grocery sector by Woolworths and Coles and malls in the American style have reduced many of our main streets to depressing wastelands of “$2 shops”, chain stores, take-aways and struggling restaurants. The only “pop-up” shops (a London trend spruiked optimistically by Wayne Hennessy in the Guardian) that tend to appear in Australia can be described as such because they tend to disappear from the scene just as quickly as they arrive.

So is the “high street” really worth saving through direct local and state government investment, or is it a concept that, in reality, is past its used-by-date? I am certainly sympathetic to the idea of providing some incentive or subsidy to local, independent businesses trying to make a start in the centre of town, but it also feels a bit like government would be a small fry pushing against the tidal wave of the retail market.

It would be particularly interesting to hear of people’s personal experiences with their own local “high street”. Is it alive? Has a local mall taken over? Does it really matter if the malls win?

Cross-posted at Larvatus Prodeo.