The economic boom was, if you were living in one of the developed economies, a fairground ride we all wanted to jump on. It was also a ride that we thought would probably never end. Gordon Brown had, he assured us, flattened out the bumps of boom and bust and we hit the malls with our plastic. But end it did, in thudding, juddering style. Look around your local town centre and you will see the consequences: boarded shops, liquidation sales and here-today-gone-next-week discounts outlets.
In a new book Real England: Battle Against the Bland, Paul Kingsnorth suggests that the recession may actually give us [citizens] the opportunity to step back, clear our heads and consider the negative impacts that the rush for growth had upon the world. The downside of boom, he contends, has been the emergence of a “homogenised” high street, the disappearance of independent retailers and “the relentless march of the identikit landscape”.
There is nothing new in this critique. But while researching his book, the author met people in different parts of the country who are campaigning to reverse the tide of corporate blandness. He witnessed communities rallying together to save local shops and businesses, and groups engaged in protests at the plans of ‘big business’ to build developments which are unsympathetic to the local community.
In St Albans, where I live, there is a campaign by local residents concerned by Tesco’s plans to develop a site in the town centre. While the standoff between Tesco and the city’s town planners goes on, the earmarked site remains empty, shops in the vicinity are either abandoned or taken on short-term leases by fast food joints, and nearby streets begin to look shabby and deprived. It is a pitiable and dispiriting sight.
So is it possible to reconcile these two forces: the spread of high street brands and the maintenance of local needs? How do you reconnect the global and the local? The answer may exist in Dorchester where following the collapse of Woolworths, the former manager, Claire Robertson, reopened the store as Wellworths, or “Wellies”, as the locals prefer to call it. Three months on, the new store has served more than 100,000 customers and there are plans to open a second store in the autumn.
According to Claire, the problem with Woolworths was that all stores had to look the same, stock the same things and failed to meet local needs. Claire isn’t making the same mistake. “We know what is going to do well and people are starting to realise that we are listening to them,” she says. One only hopes that the big brand stores that survive the recession are listening too.