Are we in danger of long term social problems…?

As BID managers, town and city centre managers, the focus of work can often seem geared towards businesses and strengthening our local economies. But we need to see these roles as important for the social as well as economic sustainability they can lead. We need to recognise and communicate much more about the social value of many businesses to our communities as well. Without raising the profile of the social roles businesses play in our places, we may underinvest, meaning that social problems will await us and will be more likely to cost more in the long term.

Picture the scene

There is a lady in her mid-70s, her family have moved away. She lives in a small market town and has done all her life. Just 2 years ago, she enjoyed popping into her local bakers and butchers every day and stopping off for a cup of tea at a local café. Just two years later and her town has lost the bakers and the butcher has retired and just sold the premises. The shops that have been replaced are one beauty shop, two hairdressers, two gin bars and a wine bar and the weekly market has simply disappeared. She feels dislocated from a place she has known for decades. She goes out less and gets her shopping from a large supermarket. She doesn’t feel like she belongs here anymore. She knows her lack of social interaction is making her sad. Her doctor has seen a rapid deterioration and knows that loss and loneliness is affecting her mental health. Her lack of mobility is also affecting her physical wellbeing. In a very short time, she will need more social care and the council will need to support her with carers. Her case is not an isolated one and with an increasing ageing population, we need to look at the role of place in helping address the issues.

The office of national statistics uses the Old Age Dependency Ratio (OADR) which shows 285 in every 1000 are aged over 65. The impact on social care needs is clear to see. But the longer we stay healthy in mind and body, the less soon we are likely to need support. Place plays a vital part in the mix and keeping a healthy high street can support a healthier community. It is why I founded ShopAppy with a vision to support better places to live, visit and work.

It’s not only older people who suffer when shops and businesses close. BIRA acknowledges in its top ten reasons to shop local that long lasting friendships are made with shopkeepers. I see it in the conversations between local retailers and local families when I shop local.

ShopAppy bag – ARTWORK 1 colour (1)Local groups also find it difficult to continue when businesses close. Local shops, cafes and craft businesses are often the hub of local events and gatherings, from pottery, scrap-booking, floristry, books and more. Local businesses also tend to support local activities in other ways providing finance, shelf space, local giving schemes or prizes. The ACS report states that 81% of local convenience shops engaged in some form of community activity in the last year. If local shops are not supported to thrive, community groups struggle and either close or look to local authorities to help. If local councils can support the businesses to thrive, then these all-important and often ignored services can continue to help communities to connect and most importantly they can grow.

It isn’t just the community and social role businesses play in community, mental health and wellbeing that is important. It is also the sense of entrepreneurship and opportunity that reduces when a town centre begins to lose heart.

Here’s another example you may recognise…

A young man who lives in a pretty big market town nearby. He has always loved design – particularly creating and upcycling new products. His family has always said he had an eye for design. He has finished college and has always wanted to set up a shop in his local area and to expand from there. Problem is that the rents are high, and his high street has a lot of To Let signs on it. Rather than stay where he is, he has decided there is no future in physical retail. He heads to the city and works for a large online retailer marketing products instead.

He will likely never return to his home town and will eventually once settled decide that starting a new business is just too much of a risk. Had he chosen to set up in his town, with his design and marketing flair, he would have done well. He would likely have employed at least two assistants in his own business, gone into franchising and helped many other local businesses by buying from local suppliers.

According to a recent report by the RSA, retailers in the UK employ over 3 million people and retailers are “particularly grounded locally: they rely on local populations for customers and staff”. Spending locally has been found to provide a significant contribution to local economies – some 63p in every £1 according to the FSB. Healthy communities are working communities in my book.

City-centred living and working has a negative impact on secondary towns and reduces the diversity of employment opportunities. Once a town experiences a loss of attractions and enterprise, other services suffer too. In one district, a National Health Service struggles to recruit, as staff don’t want to live and work in an area where there appears to be “nothing going on”. As well as bearing the financial burden of unemployment, local authorities may similarly fail to recruit in places which appear unattractive. Lack of skilled labour means reducing investment and the decline accelerates fast.

It isn’t only the lack of employment that presents a problem. Once decline sets in and local authorities cannot support their communities, there is often an associated rise in anti-social behaviour, crime and poverty. Once again the cost to communities as well as the public purse accelerates.

It’s a bleak picture, but one that we will all recognise. Yet in spite of this, there is little to no investment in retail from local authorities. Cash-strapped local authorities are struggling to meet their short-term obligations let alone the long-term needs.  Problem is they are cutting back on the very supporting mechanisms that could help them long term. Councils have cut salaried town centre managers, there is little training support for new high street businesses or existing ones. Most funding schemes prioritise tech, health, manufacturing over B2C enterprises like retail.

The economic loss to places is one thing, but it is the social loss to our communities that will have the far-reaching consequences.  It is time to start addressing them now. These complex problems need collaboration and big picture thinking. Our businesses and our places need infrastructure to be maintained and to grow. It can seem like we are operating in a hostile environment for retail but without investment in infrastructure, the future looks a whole lot more hostile longer term.


*ShopAppy is helping to support towns by mixing clicks and mortar, enabling businesses to showcase what they offer and to sell their services together to the customers most likely to use them in person.  Our theory is that if we can build sustainable customer bases for businesses, we can help create sustainable futures for our places.