A reasonably well balanced report, I thought, from the BBC's Hugh Pym, as he walked along Margate High Street yesterday.
Margate, the BBC reports, is the worst hit town in the country, with a shop closure rate of 25% while cities in the north of England like Leeds and Liverpool also have rates of more than 20%.
Out of town shopping centres, such as Westwood Cross, are undeniably a factor in the demise of the great British high street but the collapse of large retail chains, such as Woolworths and the manner in which high streets have come to be dominated by the same over the last twenty years, Burton, H.Samuel, Woolworth, Next and more also lies firmly behind the problem.
Once a big out-of -town retail park appears, the big chain simply 'up-sticks' and create a vacuum in the town centres. In the same way, shoppers, vote with their feet and if they hadn't been going to Westwood Cross, they would have been going to Canterbury instead.
Margate's greatest challnge is chronic social deprivation, where it a leads much of the country in the harsh figures of despair. Thanks to the social-engineering of succesive Government's, frequently referred to as 'Dole-by-the-sea' , Margate and Cliftonville, together with other well-known seaside towns has witnessed a demographic change from which it is very hard to recover without significant Government investment. You can see this is our local health figures, teenage pregnancy rate, unusually high percentage of houses in multiple occupancy, domestic abuse figures and more.
Given the prevailing financial crisis, money from Government on the scale required is most unlikely, unless you happen to believe in fairies and so we are left to struggle with the multiple challenges while making regeneration and economic development through attracting new business to Thanet a top-priority.
If high street businesses are to be succesful, they have to first offer some advantage or attraction to local shoppers and secondly, those same local people need a sufficient disposable income to support the shops by visiting them. In this respect, Margate lies arguably between a rock and a hard place, sharing the tough experience of this recession with a score of seaside towns dotted across the South-east, even Brighton,to a degree.
A few weeks ago, I was in le Touquet, which is as up market and as well-heeled as you can possibly get for a European seaside town. I was astonished to see how many closed down shops and boutiques had appeared since my last visit. Tourists aren't spending money or simply aren't coming and the volume of business no longer exists to support some of the trendier stores there.
Woolworths was vitally important for Margate and Cliftonville as it occupied an important retail and social shopping niche. Without it the two suffer disproportionately with a knock-effect rippling through the shops as footfall decreases.
If I knew the answer to this problem I might become rich overnight. This recession is both changing the face of retail and the way in which we perceive it in terms of our shopping habits. In the meantime, as long as Government isn't prepared to help retailers by lowering the business rates, all councils can do is try very hard to find ways of encouraging new ideas and new busineses to set-up shop and act as a catalyst for future recovery when it comes.