As what we now call non-essential retail reopens in England, the return of crowds to our high streets will presumably be hailed as a moment of unbridled collective joy: a great national pastime restored, money at last handed to businesses besides Amazon and the big supermarkets, and – amid hazard tape and sanitiser stations – our ghostly town and city centres brought back to life.
But what people will find when they get there may make for a distinctly melancholy experience. Precise numbers for the entire retail sector are hard to come by, but over the course of 2020, Great Britain is reckoned to have lost about 17,500 chain outlets. In the six weeks until mid-February this year, more than 1,000 more announced their closure; the rate of job losses is now put at 850 for each working day. Once businesses exit the current pause on business rates and the furlough scheme draws to its planned close in September, there will presumably have been even more casualties: some forecasters predict that there could soon be as many as 80,000 vacant shops around the country.
Whatever its outward appearance, this is much more than a story about the pandemic and its effects. Fundamentally, we are in an accelerated phase of a transformation that has been under way for the best part of a decade. Some people, in fact, understand the retail crash as a long-overdue reckoning.
In March 2010, there were reckoned to be 286,680 retail outlets in the UK. A decade later, even though online consumerism had grown to about 20% of total spending, the figure was 306,895. We have become, it seems, a country with simply too many shops. Retail analysts say that in some places the amount of space given over to retail needs to come down by about 30%, which would obviously be a drastic and hugely disruptive change, to the built environment and people’s everyday lives.
In truth, a shift of this magnitude is probably already happening. And capitalism being capitalism, it is largely being left to let rip. When Philip Green’s Arcadia empire imploded last November, it spelled the end of brands that sometimes seemed to fill whole streets: Topshop, Topman, Miss Selfridge, Dorothy Perkins, Evans, Burton. An even greater vacuum is threatened by the end of Debenhams, that old byword for democratic, middle-market consumerism that is vacating all 124 of its stores – not just in big cities such as Manchester, Liverpool and Edinburgh, but Ipswich, Hereford, Llanelli, Oldham and Scunthorpe.
Which brings us to something that has so far been overlooked. Such smaller cities and large towns often lack the advantages that may enable bigger urban centres to escape the retail crash’s worst effects: large institutions of higher education, thriving creative industries, the kind of hipster business people drawn to repurposed spaces and salvaged decor. And for these places, the loss of shops – not just in town centres, but the retail parks and shopping centres that often ring them – is a particularly huge blow, to local economies, and also people’s collective sense of self-esteem. As many big chains collapse or withdraw, any alluring, aspirational aspects of town and city centres inevitably dwindle, something brought home by last week’s news that as other high street giants fade away, the ubiquitous discounter Poundland is to open about 30 new shops in the UK and Ireland.
In retrospect, all this highlights a Great British mistake, whose consequences have been rippling through our politics for a very long time. From the 1980s onwards, retail was promoted as a means of filling the gaps left by shut-down industries, often with grimly symbolic consequences: witness the site of the old Cortonwood colliery in South Yorkshire, the first pit to walk out in the miners’ strike of 1984-1985, which is now the home of Sports Direct, TK Maxx, Pets at Home and the other occupants of a vast retail park.
There was always something precarious about this shift: a sense of people working in shops to earn money to spend in other shops, and the constant prospect of the whole structure threatening to topple in on itself. To some extent, this is pretty much what happened after the crash of 2008, which soon put people’s loud complaints about empty shops at the heart of the anxious, resentful popular mood that blurred into Brexit.
And now? Deindustrialisation is being succeeded by deretailing, with potentially big consequences. If you want a vision of one possible future, consider that in the US Amazon is buying up shopping malls and turning them into distribution centres. That might look like a means of creating new jobs, but there’s an obvious tension: such workplaces are also at the cutting edge of the replacement of human beings by robots.
Here, there are some tentative signs of other solutions. The Black Country town of Dudley is in the foothills of an ambitious regeneration plan partly focused on new housing and an ice rink. In Gloucester, the former Debenhams building has been bought by the local university, which will turn it into lecture halls and “training spaces” for healthcare workers, as well as creating a “local community culture and enterprise space”. Dumfries is in the midst of what insiders call “the first community-owned development of a high street in the UK”, centred on eight buildings, a new enterprise centre, plans for affordable flats, and a quest to remake a crucial part of the town centre on the basis of democratic local involvement.
In Stockton-on-Tees, meanwhile, the council has come up with a rather different answer to the decline of shops: simply demolishing one side of the town’s high street and replacing it with a park. But what runs through many of these projects is plain: people thinking about how to shrink and rationalise their traditional shopping districts, and tentatively push into an economic future beyond buying and selling things.
What other option do they have? The retail crash is really a manifestation of huge issues that run across our entire economy, which demand very big answers – finally reviving employment in manufacturing via a Green New Deal, creating a new generation of tech-based universities and putting them in the kind of places that would most benefit, seizing on the UK’s new enthusiasm for biotech and life sciences and somehow extending it to areas that have usually been cut out of new opportunities. Amid the return of trade to high streets whose decline is now turning critical, this is what we ought to be making noise about: a future that is already here, and the inescapable question of what that means for the most basic aspects of how we work and live.
John Harris is a Guardian columnist