Monday, 27 June 2011

Saving Medway's Highstreets

Recently in the local Press there was an article regarding the purchasing of a shop on Rochester High Street by a charity, I forget which one, and the fear of shop keepers and locals that the high street will become a haven for second hand shops and charity shops thus ruining the quaint nature of the Cathedral city.

The local Labour party are keen to blame the Council administration for the collapse of Gillingham and Chatham shopping centres and indeed they do have some points. The parking in Gillingham is atrocious and the road works and constant changes to the one way system and infrastructure of Chatham does put people off attempting to go into the town and the poor town management that has placed too many superstores on the outskirts that draw people away from small shop owners like green grocers, butchers etc . Prices have to go up in small shops so that they can pay their overheads and large faceless Supermarkets can and will always undercut them for price and draw in shoppers.


There are two factors that they haven't considered fully.

1.) Gillingham High street has been dying for years, decades even. As a boy I remember there were many more shops and even the parade of shops on Sturdee avenue had a green grocers several corner shops were scattered around the residential areas. Now most have been converted to houses or eaten up by Tesco or Co op chain stores who can afford to have lower prices than an individual shop keeper.
Gillingham has lost a lot of trade to Chatham high street and Hempsted Valley as it has more choice and larger shops. Hempsted has much better parking (free to boot) and with the 182 Bus route that runs from Twydall to Chatham runs handily (especially for me as it stops outside my house!!!) through Gillingham high street so a lot of people just travel down to Chatham.
Gillingham is therefore left with the bare essentials, mainly charity shops and cheap outlet stores like "The works" and "99p stores".

Chatham itself is holding its own, the Pentagon Shopping centre does house a good mix of high street names and offers plentiful choice and competition. I'm afraid to say that Rochester will eventually succumb to the same pressures although slowly as it does have a seasonal tourist base who are unaware of the draw of Chatham town centre.

It must also be remembered that one of the great temples to the Capitalist gods, Blue water, is less than an hour away, as is Maidstone.

2.) An economic shift away from shop owning to Internet retail.

The current economic situation is not condusive to shops, be they chain or individuals. Prices have risen on luxury items and the average house hold budgets can no longer stretch to buy the newest X-box games, or go overboard with the weekly shop. Charity shops and second hand stores are very helpful to people on a budget, after all my wife and I have managed to clothe Sophie in many good quality baby clothes that are second hand, her Moses basket was second hand and she always appears clean and smartly dressed for pennys rather than pounds. My wife purchases odd home ware and myself books again for pennys too.
Yes they aren't in keeping with the city of Rochester's Victorian aesthetic but they are functional and obviously popular with the wage slaves of Medway so why fight it?

It is the same trend that is killing local pubs, once a cornerstone of British society and any community, after all who wants to spend £3.50 on a pint of beer in a bar when you can spend £4.57 on a four pack of Kroenenburg and drink it in your own home, watch the footie match of your choice and smoke if you are that way inclined.

If the deaths of chains like Zaavi and Woolworths have taught us anything it is that large, popular stores can still go under BUT can successfully relocate to the Internet like Amazon. You can operate from a simple warehouse full of stock with a few workers mailing out to the customers home address for less overheads than an established shop thus can make more money.

It is indeed a worrying issue and no body would like to see their high streets die out however I fear that the situation is difficult to reverse and I would be genuinely interested to hear Medway Labour's plans on the matter as short of evicting the big super markets they will only be able to ease the situation with addressing the local issues like transport infrastructure.

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