I was just thinking... what is in store for town centres?

Peacocks shop in Royston

Peacocks shop in Royston - Credit: Archant

New columnist Colin Blumenau takes a look at the stories behind the news

I WAS just thinking about shops. Specifically, empty shops. More specifically, empty shops which once had been occupied. There are very, very many of them. The television proclaims that in Wales 18.5 per cent of all shops stand vacant and idle. London’s figure is 9.5 per cent with the West Midlands topping the league at 18.5 per cent.

The variation is significant and I’m trying to understand it and relate it to my own little patch. My impression is that many shops in Royston are shut. Similarly Letchworth and Baldock appear to be unable to keep their shop rosters full.

Each town’s historic core seems to be withering, starved of its lifeblood, whilst siege is being laid to its outskirts by the big guns of well known chains of supermarkets and other warehoused pile-em-high-n-sell-em-cheap concerns with ever increasingly fanciful names like Bedulike and Ladderama.

Yet let us take the villages of Ashwell and Bassingbourn.

The former, whilst its pubs are cast down into the Slough of Despond, seems not to have a single retail premises standing empty. The village supports a butcher, a baker, a general store, a post office, a greengrocery, a hair salon, a chemist, an estate agent and a number of other businesses to be found squirrelled away in barn conversions. Bassingbourn has fewer shops but, to the naked eye, no property opportunities for thrusting retail entrepreneurs.

So to what does this all of this portend? A resurgence in the village economy? It would be nice to think so and, to a degree, it is comforting to know that some villages are still able to support a vibrant retail infrastructure. The cynic in me whispers that this is only a temporary lull before there is a further degradation of local supply. Increased suburbanisation of our locality, proliferation of out of town retail will gradually drain even more life from both our towns and villages until … well, until what?

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I cannot help but think that there is an opportunity to redefine the character of our town and village centres. I was surprised when Royston kicked up such a fuss about the arrival of Costa Coffee. A place where people can meet and socialise is no bad thing at the heart of a community. Although there are valid objections to the mass colonisation by the international conglomerates, is there not an opportunity for local initiatives to spring up.?

Shops cannot, perhaps, continue to exist using the traditional model of 20th century operation. It shouldn’t be beyond the wit of man to come up with a new and vibrant model of community usage for the 21st century. The challenge is there before us. We should meet it head on.