Is the high street damaging our health?

York came out top in the Royal Society of Public Healths' research into healthy high streets.
York came out top in the Royal Society of Public Healths' research into healthy high streets.
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With a rise in the number of tanning salons, bookmakers, fast food joints and payday loan companies, should our high streets come with a health warning? Sarah Freeman reports.

There’s a street in York which could provide the blueprint for an ideal British high street.

Bishopthorpe Road boasts an independent butchers, a couple of delis, a florists and two fruit and vegetable shops. There are a couple of charity shops and a bookmakers, but the two high street names - Johnson Dry Cleaners and Betfred are way outnumbered by family run enterprises.

Under the banner ‘Bishy Road’, the shops were successfully shortlisted in last year’s High Street of the Year Awards, they launched a successful crowd-funding campaign for a Christmas lights display and every summer the traders stage a street party for local residents.

Add in the Shambles, historic shopping streets like Stonegate and Micklegate and it’s not hard to see why when the Royal Society of Public Health came to rank the country’s high streets, York did rather well. While Shrewsbury, Ayr and Salisbury occupied the top three spots, York came in at number nine, sandwiched between Cheltenham and Bristol.

Just fifty miles away, however, it was a different story. Huddersfield found itself on the list of worst offenders - ranked number eight in the top 10 of the UK’s unhealthiest towns. The reason? A glut of tanning shops, bookmakers and payday lenders. York has these too, but in towns like Huddersfield they have come to dominate the centre and according to the RSPH are directly linked to the health of the local residents.

In wake of the report, some have blamed the rise of out of town shops for draining life from the centre. Others complained about a lack of free parking and still more felt Huddersfield had lost its identity, swamped by retail giants which can be found in every other town and city.

“The town centre has died because of Kingsgate,” said Gaz Marks on Facebook, one of a number of people to cite the large shopping centre as one of the factors in the town centre’s decline. “It’s pretty simple really, the high street isn’t desirable any more to the big businesses, so cheaper rents entice the pound shops, tanning salons.”

It’s a familiar argument, but according to the RSPH, which ranked 70 of the largest towns and cities in the country, the lack of variety is not just affecting consumer choice, it’s also having a direct affect on our health.

The league table analysed how many ‘unhealthy’ businesses operated in each town and concluded that those with the most tanning salons, betting shops and pay day loans companies and the least ‘healthy’ business like leisure centres also fared badly when it came to health.

“While our ranking of towns and cities is by no means a reflection on whether these areas are generally healthy or unhealthy, our research does find higher concentrations of unhealthy businesses exist in places which already experience high levels of deprivation and premature mortality,” says the RSPH’s chief executive Shirley Cramer. “We recognise that businesses investing in high streets are important for local economies; but this shouldn’t be at any price.

“If we are to avoid saturation and if we are to begin to tackle major public health issues, we need to limit the number of these businesses on our high streets.”

Huddersfield is not alone if having seen its central shopping area change markedly over the last 20 years, but winding the clock back is not going to be easy.

“The basics of the problem are quite simple,” says retail expert Stephen Wigley, based at the University of Huddersfield. “Any business has to operate profitably in order to survive. In this case a business environment has been created where retailers selling items regarded by this survey as being ‘positive’ cannnot make a profit.

“When I moved to Huddersfield five years ago I didn’t really know what to expect, but found a town which had some incredibly beautiful buildings, but which has suffered in terms of retail by being surrounded by big shopping centres like the White Rose Centre, Meadowhall and the Trafford Centre. They have acted as magnets for big name retailers and restaurants drawing them away from smaller locales like Huddersfield.

“As a result smaller local retailers have to either offer something unique which is difficult, but not impossible - or cater for the market which remains.

“Yes, if we could attract a John Lewis that would be a catalyst for change, but Huddersfield needs to be able to show that there is a market for it. There maybe an opportunity to exploit the town’s heritage, but that kind of vision takes time to come to fruition.

“We have to acknowledge that Huddersfield is not the richest town in the UK. It has a large student population and the best chance for any business setting up here is to offer products and services which appeal to that customer base. In short that means fast food outlets, betting shops and money lending outfits.”

It is a point reinforced by Peter Craske from the Association of British Bookmakers. “We’ve been trading on the High Street for more than 50 years, and we employ 40,000 people and serve over eight million customers,” he said. “The majority of our shops have been in the same location for over 20 years and as with any other retailer we open because there are customers for our products

However, as the political parties begin the countdown to May’s General Election, the RSPH has now issued its own manifesto to change the shape of Britain’s high streets, which includes new legislation to allow council to set different business rates to encourage some traders and discourage others. It would also like to see the introduction of cigarette style health warnings displayed in the windows of pay day loan operations.

“There are other things which would also make a big difference,” says Cramer. “Fixed odd betting terminals have been described as the crack cocaine of the gambling world and we would like to see the maximum stake reduced from £100 to at most £30. It would also be a move in the right direction if fast food outlets were required to display mandatory food hygiene ratings as well as calorie and nutrition labelling which would enable customers to make much more informed choices.”

Back at Bishopthorpe Road the bunting has just been strung between the various shops as the area looks forward to another busy Easter.

“Of the 80 or so businesses in the Bishy Road area, 90 per cent are independent,” says a spokesman for the trader’s association. “This gives us variety and interest, as well as some top quality businesses. Research shows that when money is spent in local independents, 65 per cent is returned to the local economy . For chains or multiples it is only 34 per cent return. For us, it’s about putting business at the heart of the community.”