Article - The High Street

It is often very difficult to discern when a trend of a particular kind is reversible and when it has become irreversible. The floor of the sea is littered with the wrecks of numerous predictions that have turned out to be falsified by the future that followed them.

But I think it is reasonably safe to predict that the internet is here to stay, that internet shopping – now vast – will continue to grow, and that there will continue to be considerable effects on what we have always known as high street retailing.

This isn’t to say, of course, that we will ever see the end of little shops and other retail outlets in high streets. There are all sorts of reasons why people now continue to want – and are likely to continue to want in the future – to buy things from friendly little retailers.

But the truth is that internet shopping is now so convenient and so cheap, and of such high quality, that the traditional high street cannot compete for many purposes.

This has, of course, led to considerable nostalgia – with numerous people talking about “the death of the high street” – or even “the death of the town centre”.

A lot of this talk is based on a misconception of history. It wasn’t very long ago that most high streets in West Dorset and in the rest of Britain, mainly contained domestic residences and offices. The proliferation of retail outlets is actually a relatively recent phenomenon.

So there is absolutely no reason to suppose that the competitive advantages of internet shopping and the decline in the number of retail outlets will lead to the “death of the high street”. What it will lead to, if we are sensible, is a return to high streets that have a much higher proportion of residential dwellings, thereby contributing to solving the problems of housing that we currently face.

This more optimistic view is – one can see immediately – supremely un-newsworthy. “High streets have a future” is not a headline I expect to see soon in any newspaper whatsoever. Optimism doesn’t sell newspapers.

But it is really quite important, nevertheless to focus on the ways we can solve problems rather than focusing just on the problems themselves. If, instead of lamenting changes that can’t be reversed, we grab with both hands the future that can be created, we are more likely to make progress.

This is an interesting, particular example of a much wider phenomenon. I have frequently come across examples of things which people regard as “age-old” which have in fact changed markedly over the course of history, then changed back to an earlier incarnation.

One finds this even in the interstices between cultivation and the natural world. Patterns of agriculture establish shapes to fields and hedges and even streams and contours which then come to be regarded as natural features of the landscape. It is only if one knows the history of the thing that one can recognise whether a change is actually no more than a reversion to a forgotten past.