Highs and lows

IT has been many years since the local butcher and baker could greet all of their customers by name but the high street remains a vital part of Britain’s economy and way of life. That is why the failing standards of nearly a quarter of them must be reversed, before this country succumbs entirely to out of town shopping centres and an irreversible Americanisation.

This is particularly important in Yorkshire, where the origins of some high streets and their surrounding traders go back several centuries. From York’s medieval Shambles to all the family businesses which have long inhabited Dales market towns, and countless more across the region, these shopping areas have become part of our identity.

They have been let down, however, by elected politicians. Local authorities have stood by as huge retail parks contribute to the demise of small retailers while stiff business rates, exacerbated by soaring commercial property rents, have made it harder for start-ups to be successful.

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Councils must do more, such as providing financial incentives, to bring local and national retailers back to their faltering high streets. Given the low level of consumer spending, which sank further in May, this will not be easy, but the alternative is a return to the 1980s, when whole towns were arguably written off by the Conservative government.

Today’s coalition is of a different hue, but concerns remain. Enterprise Zones were only re-introduced after the Treasury panicked at seeing the economy contract in the final quarter of last year and their record is, at best, mixed.

Not all towns can be as successful as the tourism-rich Harrogate but, if destinations seen as less fashionable, such as Barnsley, can improve then many others can follow – although councils must play their part.