Villages Reach the Tipping Point: Many Small Communities Are Now Very Close to Losing Nearly All Their Shops and Services. (Features)

By Boyle, David | New Statesman (1996), December 16, 2002 | Go to article overview

Villages Reach the Tipping Point: Many Small Communities Are Now Very Close to Losing Nearly All Their Shops and Services. (Features)


Boyle, David, New Statesman (1996)


My parents live in a small Hampshire village called Nether Wallop. It has more than its fair share of thatched roofs and retired major-generals, but it has council housing and playing fields, too.

Haifa century ago, it boasted two village shops, a post office, two pubs, a butcher, a village policeman and police house, a doctor and district nurse, a railway station a short bus ride away, and a multiplicity of postal deliveries. That was in the austerity years of the late 1940s. Now, when we are incomparably "richer", all that's left is one pub, some groceries available in the wine merchant's and a very occasional bus.

This Christmas, many people will be visiting parents or other relatives in similar villages, and they will very likely notice some further decline since their last visit. But how has it happened? The obvious culprit is the change in our shopping patterns, but, even combined with over-regulation and the concentration of resources in cities (actually the services are struggling there, too), it does not seem enough to explain the extent of the decline. After all, those who live in villages are the loudest in demanding more local services, and a recent survey for Spar found that 80 per cent feel that a shop ten minutes' walk away is more important than a police station, church or pub.

What seems to happen, according to a new report from the New Economics Foundation, is that small towns and villages reach a "tipping point": there isn't a slow, smooth curve, but a sudden collapse, rather as with North Sea fish stocks.

Each closure is bad enough on its own: a quarter of all bank branches and fishmongers' shops disappeared in the 1990s, and the 222,000 grocery shops that existed in 1950 have come down to 35,000 today. But when the number of local retailers falls below a critical mass, it seems, the quantity of money circulating within the local economy will suddenly plummet, as people find there is no point trying to do a full shop in town. According to the report, if only half the population does a small amount of shopping at a new superstore, it can be enough to bankrupt the town centre; very little supermarket revenue stays circulating in the local economy. Then you get a rash of fly-posting and abandoned buildings.

What is most alarming about the report is that it finds that many rural communities are now dangerously close to their tipping point. The main reason is the foot-and-mouth epidemic, but, when benefit payments begin to be made electronically from March and sub-post offices lose an estimated 60 per cent of their revenue, the tipping point may actually arrive for many neighbourhoods.

Here, surely, is an issue that can bring a new respectability and seriousness to the anti-globalisation movement -- and new allies. The movement has sometimes looked a little wild and marginal. …

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