Jayne Dowle: Spectre of ghost towns should haunt politicians as high streets fight for their survival

THE day before the Chancellor announced his £1.5bn plan to transform Britain's high streets, we found ourselves in Stocksbridge and then Penistone, famous for being the highest market town in Yorkshire.

Up to £1.5bn has been made available for high streets in the Budget, but will the money be spent wisely?
Up to £1.5bn has been made available for high streets in the Budget, but will the money be spent wisely?

Well, it was until a large Tesco store opened in 2011 and decimated trade. The handsome market barn, installed at some expense by Barnsley Council a few years ago, struggles to attract enough stallholders.

Philip Hammond might like to pay a visit one day. There can’t be a finer refurbishment of a historic site in the country, but it’s just an oak-beamed empty space without any people to 
shop in it.

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Chancellor Philip Hammond announced £1.5bn for struggling high streets in the Budget.

It’s amazing where you end up at the weekend when one child plays football and the other competes in dance festivals.

We set off with an early start for an under-17s away match against Stocksbridge Steels, followed by an afternoon in the warmth and glamour of the Penistone Paramount theatre.

Our mini-tour of South Yorkshire couldn’t have come at a more opportune time. It gave us the opportunity to witness at first hand the decline in two centres of commerce we don’t often visit.

Will towns like Hebden Bridge benefit from the Budget?

Both these locations were once self-contained retail areas in their own independent right. Local people had no need to travel to Sheffield or Barnsley to do their weekly shop; it was all there on their High Street.

Never mind a weekly shop. On Sunday morning in Stocksbridge, we failed to source even two cups of coffee and a currant teacake to share. Shop after shop with the shutters pulled down tight. I accept that it wasn’t a busy Saturday afternoon, but still, we expected something to be open other than the Lidl. Talk about Halloween. If you’re looking for a ghost town, look no further than the once-bustling thoroughfare of Manchester Road on a Sunday morning.

And before you write in to put me straight, yes, I did notice the new Fox Valley shopping centre. It is impossible to miss it. And that’s the point. It’s a very thoughtful regeneration of 19th century industrial buildings and the defunct part of the steelworks where my dad worked for 40 years. It has shops, cafes, a supermarket, lots of car parking and a regular market. And it doesn’t take a degree in urban studies to deduce that it has taken the beat out of what was once the heart of Stocksbridge, the high street, since it opened two years ago.

If you live in Stocksbridge, please don’t take this as a personal criticism. I’m guessing that local opinion is divided; the new shopping centre has brought jobs, kudos and helped to reinvent the area and shake off its grimy, heavy industry reputation. I know people rave about it but, to me, it’s rather like shopping in Westworld, that weird HBO TV cowboy town drama where everything is not quite real.

I’m also looking at the bigger picture and thinking not just about the Chancellor’s earnest pledge, but also about The Yorkshire Post’s Love Your High Street campaign, which aims to highlight the crisis tearing apart the main seam of countless communities. If proof was ever needed that action needs to be taken, and taken now, here it was before us on a wet and windy Sunday morning.

The Treasury is promising £900m in business rates relief for small retailers, plus a £675m fund to pay for local projects, such as improving high street transport links and refurbishing historic local buildings. The fund will also support the creation of a taskforce of experts to help local authorities develop “innovative strategies to help high streets evolve”.

Excuse me for being cynical, but I’m sure I’ve heard it all before. Central government has been banging on about turning historic buildings into apartments and office space for years now.

The problem is that local life moves at a much slower pace than Westminster imagines, and perceptions take generations to shift. I’m sure that the experts Mr Hammond has in mind are very clever and have lots of whizz-bang ideas, but I’m also these fancy notions will splutter and die like a sub-standard firework.

It is all very well focusing on the shuttered shop windows. What is needed is an overall vision for retail, hospitality and supporting services, which includes cafes, hairdressers, barber shops, taxi firms and so on. No-one likes to see empty retail units, but the answer is not to fill them with betting shops and take-aways as a default option. Local authorities must be made to repeat this ad infinitum.

And with respect to Fox Valley. I appreciate the vision, but it’s a prime example of the lack of joined-up thinking which has characterised retail development in this country for decades. All emphasis is on the shiny things of the new shops; the poor long-established local traders are left behind in the rush. £1.5bn is a lot of money for a shopping list. It must be given proper thought and spent wisely.