23 May 2012 by Dickon Ross
Few things have changed in our local environment as much as our local high streets: local food shops have turned into gadget shops; family run businesses have been replaced by nationwide chains; household names like Woolworth have disappeared. And under all that change has been a slow but sure decline. Town centre vacancies have doubled in the last few years, as consumers spend as much away from the high street as in it.
As Portas points out in her report, the major supermarkets and malls may have drained the traffic and shops from town centres, but they have met the needs of consumers. The problem is that the traditional high street didn't adapt as quickly or as well.
Where Portas looked at what government could do to save the high street, in this issue we look at the role of innovative engineering and new technologies and we take one small, typical town centre as an example: Walmington-on-Sea.
Many of you will recognize the name even if you can't quite place it. That's because it's the fictional town setting for Dad's Army, the Perry and Croft sitcom that ran for nearly a decade to the late 1970s on British television and regularly rebroadcast after that.
If that still means nothing to you, Dad's Army was the nickname given to the Home Guard, a collection of enthusiastic and experienced but hopelessly under-resourced volunteers who were ineligible for regular military service for various reasons: in the sitcom it was mainly because of their age. The Home Guard wouldn't have stood much of a chance in the event of a German invasion but it served as a good morale booster on the Home Front.
We don't want to turn back the clock but history can sometimes help us plan for the future. Walmington-on-Sea was in many ways a typical English town centre, home to butcher Lance Corporal Jones, bank manager Captain Mainwaring and grocer ARP Warden Hodges. There was also a tea room, cinema, church and everything else you'd expect in a typical English High Street of the mid-twentieth century. In the magazine we map the fictional town and imagine what might have become of all these places since the fifties and sixties and what will become of them in the future.
Walmington-on-Sea would no doubt have fought hard against a military invasion but resistance would have been useless against waves of economic and technological change brought by shopping centres and supermarkets, analogue and digital home entertainment technology, and finally online commerce and mobile commerce.
According to a 2008 Competition Commission report, in the fifty years from the 1950s to the turn of century, butchers and greengrocers declined from 40,000-45,000 each to fewer than 10,000 each; bakeries declined 25,000 to 8,000 and fishmongers from 10,000 to 2,000.
Then came online shopping. Internet sales are only a tenth of retail sales in the UK but e-commerce accounts for around half of the sales growth in the last decade. And sales over mobile phones are now rising dramatically.
We're all doomed? Not yet. High street shops may have a new future as high tech fashion showrooms, equipped with the latest retail technologies? Transport is changing too: kerbside electric vehicle charging points are starting to appear, bringing into town cleaner, quieter vehicles than Jones' trusty butcher van. And the first driverless, automated trains would perhaps be arriving soon at Walmington-on-Sea railway station.
The Institution of Engineering and Technology
Posted By: Dickon Ross @ 23 May 2012 12:08 PM Introducing an issue of E&T
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