(BBC News School Report) What should we do with our high streets?

(Reported by Ian Volkov, Year 8)


It’s becoming quite a common sight on our high streets: empty shops, their windows smothered and lathered in white paint or boarded up, and a for sale sign on the wall. Fifteen stores a day in the UK are closing down, and the number of new stores opening has fallen to the lowest level for five years, largely due to the rise of online shopping companies. That’s 5,475 shops closing a day in our country. With our high streets and towns losing money, this figure will inevitably rise in the future.

Mainly, it’s small independent companies that are closing down, but there have been instances of large brands closing in the last decade, such as Woolworths, Blockbuster and Comet. Small stores struggle to make a name for themselves and make an impact on the high street scene – they just don’t have the same resources available as large chains. Slowly but surely, many are falling into the void of bankruptcy. Nearly 300 retailing firms have fallen, with around 25,000 of their stores affected. We are no longer a nation of shopkeepers as we used to be in the past.

Our local communities once revolved around the high streets. They were places where we went to shop, meet up with friends or have some lunch. Now they are places where people drive through; only some people go shopping, with many preferring to just order clothes or shoes online, where it is much easier. Some of our greatest architecture was designed and made for retail, such as the sweet, sophisticated sweep of Regent Street, which was one of the world’s first shopping centres.

So, to help revitalise our High Street, the government, a few years back, signed up retail consultant Mary Portas to suggest ideas on how we can rejuvenate and save our high streets. She encouraged the government to pump more money into our dried up high streets and contributed some promising ideas. Labour MP at the time Ed Miliband promised to help small shopkeepers by not raising any costs. But none of this is going to make everything even a tiny bit better. The sums the government is offering are dismal, and there are no signs of the constant decline being halted.

Yet the main problem with the pointless scheme is not its failure, but its hidden impulse. It demonstrates our predisposition to romanticise the past and to refuse to clasp a decent opportunity when it leaps on top of us and doesn’t let go. Retail’s move from pure and simple bricks and mortar to the internet brings two quite large benefits. One is that the hours we once spent shopping can now be filled by reading novels, watching the latest television series, staring at the ceilings, or anything  more entertaining than blindly rambling round supermarket aisles trying to remember what we need to buy.

The other benefit of the rise of internet shopping is that it frees up valuable property for other uses. Buildings in the high street do not have to be occupied by retailers. They can also be used for housing, which we are rather short of in quite a large part of the country. As I said earlier, more and more shops are becoming boarded up. So why not turn them into houses? The more homes that are built, the easier it will be for house hunters to find the perfect home for themselves.

Because we no longer do much of our shopping in our local neighbourhoods, we know our neighbours less well than we used to; but the technology that is killing the high street allows us to develop friendships with people on the other side of the planet who share our interests, and frees up valuable space to create quality and modern residential quarters for our growing population. To my mind, it’s a race that we are winning slowly.