Is it time to let East Anglia’s high streets die?

PUBLISHED: 00:40 07 February 2020

East Anglia's high streets have to change to survive, writes Richard Porritt

East Anglia's high streets have to change to survive, writes Richard Porritt

East Anglia’s towns and cities are changing ... and Britain’s favourite past-time is to blame.

Every week as a boy my mother and I would go shopping. I don't mean the Thursday night big shop at the supermarket when I would be allowed a copy of Smash Hits and to pick some sweets.

This was the real event - often the highlight of my week.

We would drive to the local town centre and park in a beautiful, brutal, multi-storey car park. And we would wander around the shops.

Mum would look at clothes she couldn't afford. I would add to my ever-increasing Christmas/birthday list. And we might end up spending a few quid on an ice cream and a coffee.

In the recent past shopping was an activity, something people did in the open air.

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But today all that has changed. And nothing will ever be the same again.

In many ways we are lucky to be living through the internet revolution. A time when nothing stands still.

As a journalist I have felt this more than most.

When I started in the trade the intensity of the approaching deadline was enhanced by the rumble of the printing press being powered up the bowels of the building.

Nothing will ever beat the thrill of rushing to file a story on the day's big news and just a few short hours later witnessing people reading my story as they travelled home on buses and trains.

But those days are over.

Newspapers were slow to react to people's changing habits. For far too long executives hoped the internet was a fad and would somehow go away. There was a hopeless belief that people would never read news on phones. That people still yearned to buy the printed product.

And many do. Whatever the naysayers claim, this newspaper is in rude health. Print sales are better than the industry averages and our digital readership grows and grows. Reports of the death of journalism, I am delighted to announce, have been greatly exaggerated.

But getting to the point where we have been able to turn the corner and encompass both the traditional print readership and readers who prefer to get their news online has been painful.

Methods that had been slavishly observed for decades changed. Perceived wisdom was lobbed out of the window in favour of analytics and statistics that once and for all prove exactly what types of stories our audience wants and enjoys.

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Very happily the appetite for journalism remains. News media firms finally understood that they could either own their evolution or the market would change and leave them behind.

Now the High Street must also make that change or be lost forever.

Our town and city centres are not charity cases. I have no sympathy for shop owners who bemoan the death of the high street and blame the mean, internet corporations that have stolen their business.

Yes, there are issues for retailers which need to be urgently addressed - business rates being perhaps the most pressing.

But shops in the traditional sense cannot compete on price or convenience with the likes of Amazon.

So, the high street has come to a cross roads.

And although the government can help there should be no bailouts or handouts. Capitalism must never become a charity case.

Running a successful shop, pub, restaurant is a very tricky business. The slightest whim of the general public can cause sales to spike or sink.

But shops are surviving - and thriving. The difference between success and failure is the ability to offer people something they cannot get online. Whether on price, product or experience shops in the 2020s must adapt or die.

Norwich, Ipswich, Colchester and every town inbetween will never be the same - but with imagination, graft and a bit of luck they can survive.

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