So, is Twickenham turning into one big ‘to let’? Well, next time you’re out look up above the line of the shop fronts and one feature repeats itself over and over again, the “to let” board. For those in steady work the recession might not feel too real. Yes, the pay rise might have been more modest or even zero, yes there are budget cuts, and perhaps a friend of a friend has been made redundant. And if you’re the one who’s lost their job then clearly that takes matters to a much higher level of stress and worry. But what about a town itself? What happens when recession strikes there?
Let’s be honest, Twickenham is not a one industry town where the closure of the factory throws hundreds out of work. Twickenham is an affluent outer suburb in an affluent city. Nevertheless, changing shopping habits and the effects of recession have crept insidiously down the high street. London Road, Richmond Road, King Street, Heath Road. These streets easily have a dozen vacant shops, offices and pubs between them. Are these businesses even missed? In some cases yes, but the terrible thing is that in many cases they probably aren’t. Can you even remember what some of them were before? You miss your usual café, you go to Starbucks instead. You want phone accessories, you buy them online. You need a haircut, there’s another one opposite. You want second-hand books, you go to a different charity shop.
However, what’s been lost should not measured in terms of products on shelves but in terms of the character of the town. Each closure, each empty shop takes something away. Fewer shops means less variety, less money going to local traders. More vacant offices means fewer people buying their lunchtime sandwiches and stocking up on essentials. So will it ever improve? Well, yes of course. Bust will inevitably be followed by boom (unless you’re Gordon Brown who thought he’d broken that economic cycle). Retail and office space will fill up again but what we get next won’t be the same as what went before. Sometimes this can be a good thing, shops selling stuff that no one wants either need to change or be replaced, but in tough times there’s little time to adapt and it’s those with the deepest pockets that survive. And of course there’s not much of a correlation between money and character (you can look at Heat magazine to show you that).
Every little helps?
Once they’ve gone, it’s hard to see independent shops returning in anything like the same numbers although there is always some scope for the niche retailer. You’re more likely to get a big name than a local entrpreneur. Case in point: the Tesco Express at the Green end of Heath Road is already proving popular to the detriment of the local traders in the vicinity. Three months of facing up to Tesco promotions and having their prices scrutinised by the boys in blue has been an awfully long haul for the small shopkeepers nearby. But remember folks, “Every little helps”. It’s a brilliant pocket-patting, super-chummy, bezzie-mate kind of slogan. But who is it really helping? Who are the ultimate beneficiaries when a parade of shops stands empty? The local community or the nation’s largest supermarket chain?
Likewise for the rest of central Twickenham. When the good times return, will those empty shops be home to pound shops and national chains with computerised pricing models or will they fill with something more interesting? Twickenham already grapples with something of a Jekyll and Hyde personality. Church Street, the river, Marble Hill Park, Eel Pie Island on the one hand versus the roar of buses on King Street, Poundland and Regal House on the other. The truth is, we probably do need a bit of both, after all not many people do all their weekly shop at the Farmers’ Market. But achieving a balance is tricky and once character has gone it’s hard to bring it back with any real authenticity. So, will Twickenham find this balance or will deep pockets prevail as it slips in to becoming “just another High Street”? But remember, it’s partly in your hands. That’s something to ponder on when next using the auto-checkout at Tesco or sipping your latte in Starbucks.
So, with so many empty units at the moment, what type of shops do we need to complement the town? And what could the twickerati live without? You can always vote with your wallet on the high street or be a reet lazy sod and just add your comments below.