We want light at the end of the tunnel, not traffic wardens – David Behrens
It was during the freezing January of 1976, as I milled around Red Square trying not to look like a reporter, that people waiting outside the state-run department store began wandering up to me. Was I carrying any black market Levi’s they could buy, they wanted to know. This was apparently a standard greeting for foreigners.
I slightly regretted not having brought any with me – I could have made a fast buck – and as I saw the lines outside Next and Primark this week, there was more than a little déjà vu.
Of course, there is always a queue outside Next when the sale starts, but this was different. The reopening of non-essential shops after the best part of three months was a blessed relief, especially for their employees, who must have wondered if they would have jobs to go back to. Some had been redeployed to greet each new customer through the door – reviving a tradition of personal service not seen since the era of Captain Peacock in Are You Being Served?
Outside Primark, a manager was addressing shoppers as if she were an air hostess or a head waiter reading off the specials board. “Today we have trolleys with a touch of sanitiser and you can try on shoes and put them in a basket if you don’t like them.” Didn’t she get fed up with repeating the same thing all day, we wondered. She did not. The shop was back open and that was all that mattered, she said.
Harrogate itself seemed unsure about how to deal with this new era on its high street. On the one hand, some of the pavements had been widened by means of red-and-white barriers in the road, so that shoppers could pass more easily. But more noticeable still were the yellow-and-black uniformed traffic wardens who buzzed about like annoying wasps, and in similar numbers, preying on shoppers who had come in their cars because they are not supposed to use the trains.
This sent out entirely the wrong message. Now, more than ever, town centres should be encouraging visitors who may yet be their lifeline – by changing the rules if necessary, not trying to pick people off for petty infringements. In the coming weeks, as more shops and then cafes and pubs reopen, their owners will be looking to their town halls to roll out the red carpet for as many customers as reasonably possible.
They may be disappointed there. Only three days earlier, Harrogate’s MP, Andrew Jones, had been venting his frustration to a transport forum at the length of time it took to get anything done in Britain. Our decision-making machinery was slow and cumbersome, he said, and would not survive the urgency that was now needed.
He didn’t say which mechanism in particular he had in mind, but as he was addressing Transport for the North, a talking shop that could have come straight of an old Yes, Minister script, his discretion spoke volumes.
What is already clear is that our national infrastructure will not be as flexible in helping to rebuild the economy as it was in shutting it down.
That shouldn’t be a surprise: doing anything at all is more difficult than doing nothing. But as high streets around the country reawoke, it was startling how much of the spadework had been left to private enterprise.
The retailers I visited had clearly not wasted their downtime. Staff had been retrained, queues rerouted and signs refreshed. The stores had not done this out of altruism; their survival instinct had kicked in. They didn’t want to be blamed for setting off a second wave of the virus that has now threatened every one of us, one way or another.
At the very least, their actions demonstrated a more astute sense of priorities than in Whitehall, where it was somehow thought more urgent to spend £1m on painting the Prime Minister’s RAF jet red, white and blue.
It has been, there is no denying, a terrible few weeks for the world. But what was evident in Harrogate – and what made it ultimately so different from Moscow in 1976 – was the palpable sense of deliverance, not of resignation.
And as we look to our governments, local and national, to seize the initiative right now and adapt to this new normal of ours, it would be helpful to know that they too can see light, and not a traffic warden, at the end of the tunnel.
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