About 15 years ago I lived in Hanger Lane in West London. One weekend I was left unsupervised, so I tootled off on my bike to a hill I could see in the distance and looped back around home via a river. Suddenly a magical sight appeared before my eyes - a traditional shopping street with a butcher, a baker, no candlestick maker, alas, but the independent bookshop, fishmongers and deli more than made up for that. Not a chain store in sight. Wow!
I haven't been back to Pitshanger Lane (for that was the name of this retail Narnia) since, so I don't know how it has fared, but that's what I immediately thought of when I read The Portas Review on revitalising the highstreet by the eponymous TV retail guru Mary Portas.
The Review is part of the UK Government's attempt to get the economy going again, by getting people back into town centres. There's some good stuff in it too - all designed to open up the high streets to smaller, more specialist retailers.In my view, the very dominance of big retail on the highstreet has made it vulnerable to e-commerce - why trudge around identikit big sheds if you can find the same stuff online?
To me the world economy looks like one of those cheesy sci-fi movies where an alien disease threatens to wipe out mankind, but medical science is stumped for an answer. Robert Peston's brilliant The Party's Over: How the West Went Bust on BBC2 demonstrated that debt-fuelled consumerism and financial Ponzi schemes are unlikely to get us back to the boom of the mid 90s to the mid 00s. Added to this are determinedly high oil prices and rise wages in the countries to which we have outsourced much of our production, which makes cheap tat much less cheap than it once was.
So can we harness this situation as an opportunity? Can we use the perilous position of the highstreet as an opportunity, not just for a revival of small shops a la Portas, but as a revival of small scale, local, sustainable supply chains? The modern cottage industry can be high tech and lean, able to offer quality and uniqueness, selling products that people cherish, rather than the semi-disposable cheap rubbish of yore. Loops could be closed, creating local supplies of sustainable materials.
There is still space for big shed in my utopian vision, but as actual sheds - warehouses for e-commerce, reaping the sustainability benefits of this type of business and using the local "Post Office" points Portas suggests could store deliveries that come while you are out.
Who knows if it will work, but as in those sci-fi movies, the hero usually just tries lots of stuff before he stumbles on what saves the day.