As we appear to be approaching another general election in the UK, it is time for the re-emergence of an oft-kicked political football – the regeneration of town and city centres around the country. This particular topic never fails to mildly irritate me; footage of politicians bemoaning the state of our high streets is spliced with interviews with dour shoppers, each telling tales of a halcyon era where delivery boys rode their bicycles over cobbles and when shoppers were on first name terms with the butcher, the baker, and the long-lost candlestick maker. Sentiments such as revitalising our towns obviously test well – politicians of all persuasions would not keep using them otherwise. Nevertheless, my initial instinct is to scoff. Why, after all, should we spend money on persuading people to return to somewhere they do not wish to frequent?
I am inclined to think that people themselves are the best judges of where they should shop. If they would rather have their shopping delivered to their homes instead of paying top dollar to park in a multi-storey before trudging past boarded up windows, only to be served by a disinterested teenager in a dowdy pound shop, then by all means have at it. Our shopping habits have changed. Why then should we expect the retail setting to remain the same?
Consumers are not stupid. In the decade since the 2008 financial crash, shoppers have become more discerning when deciding who gets their pound. They have decided, rightly or wrongly, that customer service, a shopping ‘experience’, and the pension funds of retail behemoths like BHS and Marks and Spencer come a distant second to product and convenience. The thunk of a package dropping through a letterbox has replaced the kerching of the cash register, leaving shoppers free to spend precious leisure time accruing Instagrammable experiences or to socialise with family and friends.
And yet there remains in the zeitgeist the idea of the perfect town centre, that bustling centre of commerce and conversation. The best towns and villages provide a sense of comfortable suffocation for those who frequent them, of delicious ennui. They provide the opportunity for unforeseen interactions in a safe environment. Many of those who potter through their towns have a tangible stake in location. They have contributed to the history of their homes in the currency of interaction, in conversations outside the butchers or by flicking a coin at the busker, or in more traditional sense via their taxes. There is a sense of identification with place, and perhaps one that I am missing, having flitted between six hometowns during my life.
Nor should it be forgotten that town centres by their nature funnel people together. People are drawn into higher concentrations by the need, admittedly diminishing, to access the same services. Whilst together, experiences can be exchanged, stories told, and other people’s perspectives explored. Such exchanges avoid the insularity and echo chambers of conversations via the internet. They broaden our lived experiences and force us to listen to others who share the same space in a different way. We can hear first-hand stories of times gone by, a particularly important dynamic given that loneliness is forecast to rise steeply during our lifetimes.
On reflection, our village, town, and city centres have the potential to bring people together in a substantive sense. The creation of these locations is however surely beyond the nous of politicians. Such a process takes place ethereally. It is in the chat about last night’s football in the barbers, or in the commiserating smile as someone tries in vain to get a pound coin out of a trolley. The micro, rather than the macro, will decide if our town centres thrive or wither.
Matthew Richardson is a writer of short stories. His work has featured in Gold Dust magazine, Literally Stories, Near to the Knuckle, McStorytellers, Penny Shorts, Soft Cartel, Whatever Keeps the Lights On, and Shooter magazine. He is an absentee member of the Glasgow Writers Group, a PhD student at the University of Dundee, a lucky husband, and a proud father.
Not necessarily in that order