Why do we mourn the high street? It was never a nice place to be

Let's be honest - online or out-of-town shopping is just less hassle, isn't it?

Let’s not mourn the death of the high street. Unpleasant, overpriced and unfriendly, it’s been ripping us off for years. The only surprise is that it’s lasted this long.

HMV’s decline is a tragedy for all the good people who work there, as is the slow descent into doom of the retail sector. But this is just the latest in a long line of high street collapses that tell us one thing: we’re not prepared to shop there any longer. You can wheel out your Mary Portas retail gurus to spruce up the Hindenburg’s buffet car all you like, but we’re not coming back.

The most obvious reason why the high street is awful is the presence of other human beings. They smoke, they smell, they fart and they get in your way. They carry germs and wheel pushchairs into your ankles. They talk on phones and barge into you. They exist. They live and breathe. The rascals. Why bother fighting your way through a rolling maul of angry nine-to-fivers every weekend when you can sit at home and do your shopping there instead?

It’s not just that, though. The world of stuff, as opposed to the world of pictures on screens, is an expensive place. It tries to pretend that it isn’t expensive, by wafting the weaselly musk of a half-price offer here, a buy-one-get-one-free there, but we know the truth: you’ve been clobbered for the thick end of three quid before you’ve even got out of your car or stepped off a bus. You’re out of pocket before you’ve even begun to put things in plastic bags. Why bother?

Yes, I know I should bother. I know I shouldn’t line the pockets of tax-avoiding rotters by doing my shopping online, and that I should support my local greengrocer instead, but it’s the hassle. I know there was a time when it might have been a pleasurable experience to flit from shop to shop with a basket under one’s arm, popping into the tobacconist for an ounce of sherbet and heading to the butcher for a pound of tripe, but those days are gone. The shops are gone. We killed them because supermarkets are more efficient and we like them more.

Maybe not "like" so much as "use". I’m probably not alone in appreciating the horrors of supermarket chains but still shopping there. I’ve tut-tutted at the splatter of their nasty little logos over our countryside and their carpet-bombing approach to our towns and cities... and then popped in for a pint of milk. Yes, my conscience tells me I should be ordering organic carbon-neutral local quince from the fair-trade yoghurt-weaving cooperative, but I’ve only got so many hours in the day, and so many pounds in my pocket (when I’ve got pounds at all). Give me cheapness, give me generic tat, give it to me all in one place, and I’ll bite the bullet. It’s wrong, and I know it’s wrong, but I still do it.

There’s something else, too: when we were a captive market, unable to take our custom elsewhere, the high street shops raked it in. Those of us with longer memories will be able to remember when you had to fork out £14-15 if you wanted a chart CD. Now, you don’t need the CD, and you certainly don’t owe anything to the shop who cheerily made a massive mark-up at the punters’ expense.

The only sadness, then, is for the people who made a living out of selling us stuff, and who cheerily put up with miserable shoppers like me for all those years while earning only a slim fraction of the vast sums their employers were making – they didn’t see any of those fortunes during the good old days, of course.

The only shops who will survive as places where you sell things are the ones who manage to offer something that’s a cut above the online experience, some kind of knowledge, some kind of reason to go in there and queue up and pay more. There aren’t many of those left, and they won’t be around forever. We can mourn the death of the high street that milked us for money all those years, or we can be happy we never have to go back there.

 

Other people were always what made high street shopping so unbearable. Photograph: Getty Images
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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.