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  1. Long reads
16 December 2002updated 24 Sep 2015 12:16pm

Villages reach the tipping point

Many small communities are now very close to losing nearly all their shops and services, reports Dav

By David Boyle

My parents live in a small Hampshire village called Nether Wallop. It has more than its fair share of thatched roofs and retired major-generals, but it has council housing and playing fields, too.

Half a century ago, it boasted two village shops, a post office, two pubs, a butcher, a village policeman and police house, a doctor and district nurse, a railway station a short bus ride away, and a multiplicity of postal deliveries. That was in the austerity years of the late 1940s. Now, when we are incomparably “richer”, all that’s left is one pub, some groceries available in the wine merchant’s and a very occasional bus.

This Christmas, many people will be visiting parents or other relatives in similar villages, and they will very likely notice some further decline since their last visit. But how has it happened? The obvious culprit is the change in our shopping patterns, but, even combined with over-regulation and the concentration of resources in cities (actually the services are struggling there, too), it does not seem enough to explain the extent of the decline. After all, those who live in villages are the loudest in demanding more local services, and a recent survey for Spar found that 80 per cent feel that a shop ten minutes’ walk away is more important than a police station, church or pub.

What seems to happen, according to a new report from the New Economics Foundation, is that small towns and villages reach a “tipping point”: there isn’t a slow, smooth curve, but a sudden collapse, rather as with North Sea fish stocks.

Each closure is bad enough on its own: a quarter of all bank branches and fishmongers’ shops disappeared in the 1990s, and the 222,000 grocery shops that existed in 1950 have come down to 35,000 today. But when the number of local retailers falls below a critical mass, it seems, the quantity of money circulating within the local economy will suddenly plummet, as people find there is no point trying to do a full shop in town. According to the report, if only half the population does a small amount of shopping at a new superstore, it can be enough to bankrupt the town centre; very little supermarket revenue stays circulating in the local economy. Then you get a rash of fly-posting and abandoned buildings.

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What is most alarming about the report is that it finds that many rural communities are now dangerously close to their tipping point. The main reason is the foot-and-mouth epidemic, but, when benefit payments begin to be made electronically from March and sub-post offices lose an estimated 60 per cent of their revenue, the tipping point may actually arrive for many neighbourhoods.

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Here, surely, is an issue that can bring a new respectability and seriousness to the anti-globalisation movement – and new allies. The movement has sometimes looked a little wild and marginal. But its arguments may soon be shared by people concerned about the monopolistic forces behind the emergence of British ghost towns and villages. When much of what people value in their neighbourhoods crumbles away, anti-globalisation may find it has serious electoral power.

You can already see this in the shift towards the respectability of the word “local”. Where it once implied parochial, narrow-minded or even second-rate – especially when it came to shopping – it now begins to take on a meaning akin to what “organic” means for food.

People are beginning to appreciate the enormous added value that small shops can provide. It was best expressed 40 years ago by Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. “One ordinary morning last winter,” Jacobs wrote, “Bernie Jaffe and his wife Ann [small shopkeepers in New York] supervised the small children crossing at the corner; lent an umbrella to one customer and a dollar to another; took custody of two keys; took in some packages for people in the next building who were away; lectured two youngsters who asked for cigarettes; gave street directions; took custody of a watch to give the repairman across the street when he opened later; gave out information on the range of rents in the neighbourhood to an apartment seeker; listened to a tale of domestic difficulty and offered reassurance . . .”

Her list goes on. It is all social capital, the elusive ingredient that underpins business and can inoculate against crime.

France is among the countries that has powerful regulations to control superstores. Even in the US, many towns have by-laws that ban theme restaurants. And multinationals increasingly find that local brands threaten their market share – the top ten brands in China have now squeezed out everything by Coca-Cola or Procter & Gamble.

Birmingham is one of the UK cities that are bending over backwards to find ways through the maze of European Union and World Trade Organisation rules to allow them to purchase locally. And a surprising judgment at the European Court of Justice in September, which allowed Helsinki to award a bus contract on environmental grounds, may let them do so more easily.

We may see here the beginnings of a new politics, shifting people’s perceptions about global economics, so that they begin to wonder, for example, why there is so much abandoned agricultural land around their towns when they are demanding fresh and healthy food. Can the anti-globalisation movement seize the moment?

David Boyle is editor of The Money Changers, published by Earthscan next month; Ghost Town Britain by Andrew Simms, Julian Oram, Alex MacGillivray and Joe Drury is published 16 December by the New Economics Foundation at £15 (