We’re all familiar with the scene in so many westerns: a Main Street deserted mid-morning. Shuttered shops and bars. Just one or two people scurrying to complete their business and get home safely.
Go to my local High Street in Princes Risborough or its thousands of counterparts around the country and it feels like our own version of High Noon. Of course, there’s no risk of gunmen riding into town, and there’s less sun and more drizzle than you see in the average John Wayne movie – but the sense of normal community life under threat from an unseen enemy is real enough.
Independent local retailers and other high street businesses – solicitors, accountants, printers – have for years been under pressure from big firm competition and increasingly now from online sales. Margins have been trimmed while rents, rates and taxes have stayed inflexible.
Covid 19 seems certain to accelerate and intensify economic changes that were already under way in society, especially the shift from physical to online trade and from cash to digital payments. Some High Street businesses, forced for the sake of public health to close their doors a few weeks ago, will probably never reopen.
Others are drawing on both entrepreneurial instinct and community support to find a way through the crisis.
In Princes Risborough, as throughout the country, people have come forward to volunteer to support neighbours who are vulnerable or isolating. Here, that effort has also been harnessed to deliver community support to help the High Street to survive.
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It started with Risborough Town Council – the parish council – deciding to recruit independent local shops into an order and delivery network branded as “Risborough Basket”. The council spent money to cover start-up costs, including a website and marketing, and individual councillors (all themselves unpaid volunteers) took on key leadership roles like recruiting and organising volunteers, liaising with shop-owners and managing cash.
Getting a butcher and baker was straightforward. The wine bar, office supplies shop, haberdashery and assisted living supplier (all treated as “non-essential” and so required by law to close) soon followed. We don’t have a High Street greengrocer. Instead, the operator of the Saturday fruit and veg market stall was contracted to buy supplies from New Covent Garden. The charitable trust that owns the town’s day centre for elderly and disabled people, currently closed due to Covid restrictions, agreed to turn their hall over to use as a packing and distribution centre. Volunteers come in five days a week to sort fruit and veg orders and organise boxes for delivery by another roster of volunteers.
It cannot be a perfect or permanent substitute for normal trade, but it’s a lifeline. The owner of one of the “non-essential” shops that Risborough Basket has enabled her to run at 50 per cent of normal sales despite her doors being shut to customers.
The scheme has so far shifted more than two tonnes of potatoes, 400 kg of carrots, 750 avocados and more than a thousand lemons – whether the latter represents people experimenting with lemon meringue pie or a surge in G & T consumption, no-one can be sure.
The town council, following discussions with neighbouring parish councils and volunteers, is now about to extend the scheme to nearby villages that don’t have shops of their own. The Community Bus will be used (with its corps of volunteer drivers) to carry supplies. Meanwhile the local churches are working to set up a food bank which may then use the Basket’s volunteer delivery system to get boxes to those who need them.
I don’t want to paint too rosy a picture. No-one wanted to be in this situation and everyone is longing for the day when the High Street will be open and bustling again. But there are, I think, some lessons to be drawn from this particular local experience.
First, retailers and many other small businesses have been forced by circumstance into making rapid changes to their operations that will, provided they survive, equip them better for the future. The owner of a local farm shop told me that he’d probably have developed his online and telephone sales business gradually over a period of several years. The Covid crisis, which closed his cafe and scared away a lot of customers, forced him to make those changes in just a week: no time to test systems thoroughly or train staff, they just had to get on and do it. The independent traders who survive the crisis will be far more savvy about online trade than they were six weeks ago.
Coping with the emergency has also encouraged small traders to move quickly and flexibly in a way that their supermarket rivals have found harder. There’s been no flour in our local supermarkets for weeks. Apparently there’s a shortage of the small bags used for shop sales of flour. It’s the small shops that have found flour, if necessary buying large catering size bags and weighing out the smaller quantities into polythene bags to sell to their customers.
Second, David Cameron’s “Big Society” really does exist. At both national and county level there have been far more volunteers than either national or local government can currently use. The challenge for the future will be how to sustain that commitment once people are back at work. For example, the Covid crisis has brought home to us all the loneliness experienced by so many elderly and disabled people: is there a way to channel the community spirit that we’ve seen in recent weeks to provide friendship and both practical and emotional support to those neighbours?
Third, the “Risborough Basket” scheme was initiated by an elected local authority – indeed by the lowest tier of local government that we have in England. What the town council provided was a modest amount of public money, its convening power with businesses and voluntary organisations and, most importantly, local leadership. If we look forward, whether to a nationwide testing and tracing scheme or to a much-needed reform of social care, the government will not be able to run everything from an office in Whitehall. Constructive partnership with elected local government, from metro-mayors to parish councils, will make for public services that are responsive to the varying circumstances of different places and better able to mobilise the active support of the army of volunteers that this crisis has called into being.