How we can re-organise to build the high street we want to see?
In the UK, the high street has been destroyed as a result of online retail, lockdowns and lack of urban planning. In this free market world, how can we create the locality we wish to see? How can independent businesses outcompete chains and large franchises?
I live in central London where high streets are mostly affluent or in demand. Unlike many high streets across the country, central london high streets are not all boarded up. So one can argue that we shouldn’t complain. But we’re not taking that approach, instead we’re asking how does it get better for all high streets? And what will it take to create the high streets we wish to see, and be happy to be around?
While writing this it is roughly the 3rd lockdown in London where restaurants and pubs are closed, and shops that are open can only provide a takeaway service. A cruel strangulation of the high street which has been caused by e-commerce and delivery services out-competing them for most of the 21st century.
Though the lockdown has created the phenomena of almost everyone in a big portion of the world to stay where they are, which if you try to fathom may cause some cognitive distresses. I’m definitely asking “what the heck…?”, “oh, they cancelled travel”, “sci-fi is nothing compared to this.”, , “ oh we can’t even travel into other counties”, “do i need a visa to go to the shop?”
Though what i’ve started to see is neighbours having a new kind of relation. Instead of the “friendly distance”, which is a social science description of the relationship of London neighbours, it’s a sort of friendly distance while also being part of a group chat on some (privacy breaching) messaging app. Which is quite interesting that there’s a sort of shift. Neighbours who were basically cold and/or distant now sort of engage in chat about neighbourly things. I recall my mother talking to a neighbour who uses a leaf blower weekly, which creates such a noise, it can send someone loony. I tried to tell her to knock on the door or send a letter but she never did. Lockdown came about everyone on the road is on a chat group, she brought the issue up a few others agreed, and the neighbour apologised about the noise and said they won’t use leaf blowers again. Very neighbourly very reasonable.
Along with that, the localisation of people has presented an opportunity for people to actually care about their locality. The park is another one, if you look at old pictures of Hyde Park back in the late 1800s it was a bustling and central element of people’s social lives.
At the best of times though, we live in a typical modern western capatalist model where landlords own freehold commercial property, entrepreneurs buy a lease to the property and pay rent, while hopefully they would have validated their commercial concept, such as an independant cafe, and then they would invest some money into renovating the shop before they launch with aim of servicing the customers they expect to turn up there. But that’s really hard to validate and theres no guaruntee of success. Some things you just can’t validate unless people come and you get feedback about what’s working and what isn’t. By this time the owner of the cafe would have invested a lot to get to this point. So the point is that it adds risk to a business and that is why lots of shops come and go. An entrepreneurial wastage takes place.
High rents add more risk to an unqualified independant business. Espeically if a premises has the class to be a cafe or perhaps an estate agent. Franchised estate agents can easily afford the high rents to implant themselves into a high street that really, let’s be honest, not many people use, and if people do use them, its not that frequent. Besides, who needs 5 estate agents on one small high street? That’s what deters people from going there. Many nice premises and corners are taken up by estate agents. They may argue they use the local high street for lunch and things like that which keeps cafes in business. And actually the local cafes rely on the estate agents to buy their coffees and sandwiches there. Is this what we really want our high street to be? To cater for estate agents. I’m singling out estate agents here, and it is really a problem. There are just so many of them. A person who believes that free market economics is natural phenomena would say that there’s nothing wrong with the highest bidder to out compete everyone else and that’s the way it should be full stop. But that perspective really suffers from myopia and should be left as theories in an old unwanted eonomics text book. No one wants 5 estate agents on a high street. Theres something seriously crap about that.
Where we live is kind a big thing, because its where we hang around for long periods of time, some of us a few months or years, and for many who have a mortgage or some kind of secure tenancy, they’re looking at 15 years or more in that area.
Let’s face the above way of doing things is very inefficient, yet its basically the only way things are done.
So what is the solution?
The solution is that people should organise and choose what they want in a democratic way. They should take pride in the high street they helped to design and some people should post some funds in a collective pot to help put the shops there they want to use.
We have an opportunity to do this…
What if a cafe was part owned by three groups. The people who use it, the people who work there and the investors who put money in the pot and an entrepreneurial part owner? The workers, and the investors and the entrepreneur.
First the local community come together and decide what they want. What category of shop do they want? Do some people have specific ideas that other people like the sound of?
Then its the question of how can inde shops who have been pushed out come in to it. Well the community who have put some money in the pot can partner with the entrepreneur who wants to set up the shop, let’s call it a fishmongers. The entreprenuer provides the plans to the community and they approve it. They pledge the patronage to the shop, and the patrons also have a say in the shop once it opens. The community may want the shop to be worker owned and the entrepreneur may agree. Then at the end of the year, the tax is paid out first, then the surplus made is divvied up between the workers, the entrepreneur, the community investors.
A sort of cooperation between all stakeholders.
To avoid one person having too much interest in the fruits of a community asset we can incentivise there being lots of people that put a little rather than a few people putting a lot, by adding weightings of shares over a quadratic graph. It’s a little technical but lots of smart people are working on these kinds of mechanisms for social good.
What about poor communities with boarded up high streets. Granted it is harder at lower income areas, where people are either homeless, on the edge of homelessness, relying on foodbanks, or just generally struggling families financially. This of course raises a greater question, how did we get here? how do we deal with this kind of economic disaster, that is simply being swept under the carpet by a rigged system managed by governing elites, divorced from reality? The boarded up shops, or the streets with too many estate agents is a microcosmic representation of the illness of the system of stagnant power that we live under, which is ripe for transformation. How can people living in such poors have a thriving local economy when salaries and pay just doesn’t stretch to support a high street? These kinds of painful issues can’t be just left as a blind spot, we have to address them come up with solutions, and whoever believe that we should rely upon, or whomever we believe has failed and casued this, we should no longer have any expectations of them and instead organise collectively, locally and coherently