Napoleon called us a nation of shopkeepers. But a nation of shoppers might have put it better. Britain’s appetite for retail therapy is as voracious as it is long standing. But the way we shop changes, and things are changing faster than ever just now.
The move to supermarkets, and out-of-town shopping centres has been under way for years. And now you don’t have to visit a shop to be a shopper. Britain is Europe’s top Internet shopper with one in six purchases made online.
This poses an enormous challenge to the traditional High Street. The news is awash with famous name is in trouble, from Homebase to House of Fraser. The same trends affect small shops too, not least here in the Borders.
Does this mean our town centres are doomed to a dusty death of tumbleweed and ‘for sale/let’ signs?
Not a bit of it.
The modern economy is characterised by mobility – people choosing where to live, work and invest. The internet then, is also a golden opportunity because it allows more people to work and live away from big cities. There is no more attractive place to do both than the Borders.
Our towns have extraordinary potential because of their superb architecture and their role at the centre of Borders life. Hawick, with its magnificent High Street, Kelso and Duns, with their Netherlandish squares and the historic centres of Jedburgh, Gala, Peebles and Selkirk – unchanged in concept since the days of David I – can all act as magnets of economic vitality and public life.
The future lies in our towns becoming destinations for a broader mix of activities: eating and drinking, leisure, culture, services, specialist shopping and small business.
Our task, then, is to preserve and enhance the attractiveness of our towns while encouraging them to adapt to changing economic patterns.
This month the Council agreed sweeping changes to the planning rules to make it easier for different kinds of business to invest in town centres. At the same time we’re working with property owners and heritage agencies to fund improvements to historic buildings there.
Meanwhile we have set up task forces to exploit economic opportunities in Hawick and Eyemouth, and we are working with government on three separate regional growth deals to encourage investment and innovation across our region.
The Council doesn’t have a magic wand. Government, whether local or national, can’t create wealth on its own. But if we embrace change while playing to our strengths the future is bright.
A version of this article appeared in the Southern Reporter on 26th July