British high streets have been ‘dying’ for decades but the latest emergency is unprecedented: 16,000 stores closed their doors in 2019, the most in 25 years. Around 140,000 people lost their jobs, four out of five of them women, because they tend to be employed as cashiers and checkout operators.
The Centre for Retail Research warns a further 171,000 workers could experience the same in 2020, further casualties of 10 years of austerity and the unfettered rise of Amazon and other internet enterprises.
While the women are made jobless, their partners, sons and dads are more likely to be hired, into what you can’t call employment: trying to scrape a living in the ruthless, precarious gig economy featured in Ken Loach’s film Sorry We Missed You. Ninety per cent of the 100,000 new van drivers taken on to deliver internet orders are men.
A supermarket-generated recession hammered traditional food shops decades ago, yet those that survived or opened since demonstrate more resilience than non-food emporia. The rise of the indie coffee shop, the blossoming of well-run delis, and the continuing appeal of expert butchers all illustrate that when small shops offer a personal service and a quality of food that can’t be standardised, they are valued, supported, and economically feasible. Amazon’s food offer does little to stir the digestive juices.
But the problem even for the best small food concerns is that the steady loss of non-food enterprises reduces the number of people who visit their vicinity. Parades of shops are dynamic. Like the teeth in our mouth they prop each other up; when the post office or ironmonger’s goes, the greengrocer starts wobbling.
The government’s overdue pledge of £1bn for stricken retail parades; its too little too late ‘High Street Taskforce’; and promised 50% business rate reduction are utterly inadequate when online sellers can undercut bricks-and-mortar stores and ruin their proprietors’ livelihoods because they pay very low rates of tax.
One of Amazon’s biggest UK operations, for instance, paid just £1m in corporation tax last year, despite its £2.3bn turnover.
Unless this government levels the playing field and finds the bottle to take on Amazon and other corporate tax avoiders that feast on our high streets’ demise like carrion, once thriving parades will always be in special measures.