IF we are not careful, we are going to end up like Americans and goodness knows, we don't want that. They do all their shopping in malls, strip-malls and drive-ins and proper town centres are tourist attractions.
The last time I was in Washington State relatives took Maria and me shopping to the Westfield Southcenter (American spelling).
This covers 1.7 million square feet over three floors and has parking for 7,000 cars. I thought I had been taken to hell.
And yet this is the way our retail experience is going because of the trend to follow the American way and give planning permission for any number of malls and giant supermarkets miles from anywhere.
This is why one in seven of our town centre shops are empty nationwide. This is why 25,000 have closed in the last 11 years and up to 9,000 more are expected to put up the shutters in the next three years.
This is why the Prime Minister asked Mary “Queen of Shops” Portas to produce an advisory report on what could be done to stop the trend and revitalise the High Street.
Among her recommendations are changing planning laws to stop those out-of-town retail developments and get them to build them in town centres instead.
When supermarkets do build within a town centre – like the Sainsbury’s near the bus station or Tesco’s within the ring-road – they can be a very effective boost. Years ago, Fine Fare had a supermarket on the Piazza.
Mary Portas also wants to introduce a national market day and help with business rates, and wants landlords to be encouraged and cajoled in ensuring premises are not left empty. Boarded up shops are hardly conducive to a happy retail experience.
To sample the Huddersfield experience I parked in the multi storey and walked into the Market Hall and found the first four units empty and boarded up. And this 10 days before Christmas.
A stroll around town showed closed shops, To Let signs and at least two with closing down sales. About the only shops that are booming are the bargain variety.
There is the biggest Poundland I’ve ever seen on the site of the former Woolworth's store in Victoria Lane, plus another in New Street. There are stores like Bargain World, Bargain House, Poundworld and Home Bargains that specialise in exactly what they say – cut price bargains.
Add to them the large number of charity shops and you see that shopping has been transformed. You can see we are in the middle of a recession.
Fifty years ago, supermarkets didn’t exist and a car was a luxury item for many families so housewives went to local shops on a daily basis and did a Saturday afternoon shop in town on the bus.
They went to markets, grocers, butchers, confectioners, bakers. Everyone had their favourites but there was plenty of choice. There were department stores, as well, like Lewis’s, C&A and the Co-op. British Home Stores, Boots and a few others are among the survivors in Huddersfield which, like many towns, also had its own home-grown stores, such as Rushworth’s and Kayes, from which evolved Peter’s.
Town centres were healthy and thriving.
The supermarket revolution – birthed in America – began in the UK in the 1960s. It was a juggernaut that could not be stopped. At least the development of the Kingsgate Centre gave the town a new focus but it is still struggling against the lure of outlets and giant supermarkets that are now located in the middle of nowhere and reached only by car.
Shopping habits have changed and people will be loathe to give up the convenience of free parking and easy access to American style malls and hyper-stores that sell everything.
But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fight to preserve our town centres. They should be protected by planning laws, as Mary Portas says, and local planners should be evolving them into vibrant places with plenty of parking spaces.
Because I, for one, don’t want to end up like an American.