Ghost Town Britain II: “Death on the High Street

Ghost Town Britain II


‘Death on the High Street: How Britain’s local economies are losing ground and fighting back’


New Economics Foundation report, 2004


Summary & Introduction [excerpt from]


Profound changes are taking place in Britain’s economy. They are changes that undermine the fabric of communities and will derail government initiatives on tackling poverty.


One year ago nef revealed the phenomena of Ghost Town Britain. Under the pressure of wider economic forces, the closure of banks, pubs, corner shops, grocers and newsagents was creating deserts where communities no longer had easy access to local shops and services.

At the same time, an already unhealthy concentration of power in British retail was getting worse.


Now, 12 months on, even more life has been squeezed out of our genuinely local economies, and especially out of the once dynamic small and independent retail sectors. As this happens, the dynamic of the process seems to worsen. As ever fewer, larger players such as the big four supermarkets capture more of the market, their power means they are able to squeeze ever-better deals for themselves, at the cost of suppliers, farmers and smaller retailers.


The consequences are many:


Worsening economic conditions for small retailers, service providers, suppliers and wholesalers

The loss of jobs in the retail sector and…

The loss of real choice for the consumer about where to shop

Market failure, as real competition is progressively eliminated by concentration among retailers and service providers and…

The loss of diversity and identity through the creeping homogenisation of British towns and villages

The spread of Ghost Town Britain

All of the sectors previously examined continue to witness decline. In this report we not only update the previous picture but look at important new areas as well. Two new physical attributes that are crucial to community well-being are examined: open spaces, and community buildings and meeting spaces.


Another under-examined dynamic is also introduced to the set of Ghost Town Britain. Contrary to one negative perception of immigrant communities in this country, Ghost Town Britain II reveals that they make a disproportionately positive contribution to our local economic fabric. A picture emerges of new arrivals to Britain’s shores being highly motivated and, where allowed, passing on the benefits of their economic activity to the wider community. This report shows that immigrant entrepreneurs and small business people create a warm sea of activity on which everybody floats upwards.


Nightmare on the High Street


Ghost Town Britain II draws together the latest statistics to show that:


In the five years between 1~97-2002, specialised stores including butchers, bakers, fishmongers, and newsagents selling confectionery, tobacco, and newspapers closed at the rate of 50 per week

General stores have been closing at the rate of one per day

The impact of the rising dominance of the big supermarket may be hidden, as typically there’s a time lag of two-to-three years before smaller stores are forced to close, having used up their operating reserves in the battle with the big stores

The sudden growth of ‘fake local’ stores under the big supermarket brands presents yet another threat to small independent stores. For example, Tesco ‘Express’ stores have reportedly caused drops in business of 30-40 per cent for other local shops

Wholesalers, which form the retail infrastructure vital for the underpinning of local stores, have closed at the rate of six per week over the last two years, largely as a consequence of being side-tracked by supermarkets

Similarly, over a five-year period VAT registrations for small-scale food manufacturers fell by almost 12 per cent

The average person now travels 893 miles a year to shop for food

Between 1997-2002 the number of UK farm workers fell by 100,000, leading to many rural homes being taken over by city commuters with much weaker links to the local community, and who are less likely to spend their money locally

A voluntary code of conduct agreed to by the big four supermarkets governing their relationships with suppliers has not led to a single case being heard; suppliers are afraid to report breaches for fear of ‘de-listing’

According to the Campaign for Real Ale, 20 traditional pubs are closing every month across Britain

In spite of government intervention and a commitment to keep post offices open in areas of high deprivation, branch closures increased in the year to March 2003 to a total of 345. In both rural and urban areas the branch network continues to shrink. Closure rates in deprived and non-deprived urban wards are actually very similar at 2 per cent and 2.7 per cent respectively for the year 2002-03. The problem is particularly acute in rural areas where over two thirds of customers use the local post office as information, social and general service centres

By the end of 2002 Britain had lost one-third of its bank branch network in a decade. There are 800 communities across Britain with no bank left and according to the Campaign for Community Banking Services, 1,087 rural and urban communities have just a single branch remaining

A report by the Office of Fair Trading proposing deregulation of the community pharmacy sector threatened a potential closure rate for community pharmacies of around one per day. Modifications to the proposals still leave large numbers under threat in areas of high social deprivation

Losing Ground

In May 2002 a Government taskforce pointed out that ‘the condition of parks and green spaces can make or break plans to regenerate neighbourhood and improve townscapes, create a sense of place and build community’, Yet the wider trends of Ghost Town Britain seem equally to be affecting our open spaces.


Since 1989, London alone has lost green space to development the equivalent in size to 1,428 football pitches, or more than seven Hyde Parks. Between 1990 and 2000 spending on green space in Britain fell by £ 100 million. Spending on urban open spaces by local councils fell from a quarter of council budgets in the mid-1970s to just 8.3 per cent in 2001

According to English Heritage 40 per cent of urban parks are in decline, while a government taskforce found only 18 per cent to be in good condition

At the end of 2002, school playing fields were being sold off at the rate of nearly one per week, in spite of Government assurances to reverse previous Conservative Party policy. Between 1998 and 2002 planning permission was granted for the sale 195 playing fields.

In London -where 60 per cent of new housing planned for construction by 2008 is due to be built on brown field sites -about a quarter of the city’s wildlife sites are wholly or partly brownfield in character

In England, there has been a dramatic ‘real terms’ decline in local authority funding for the upkeep and maintenance of community buildings such as village halls. Funding remained frozen at £5 million per year for the nearly two decades between 1981-2000. Astonishingly, the government admitted this year that nobody knows what the actual numbers of community buildings are, or the rate of change from year to year


The full report is available from:

New Economics Foundation

3 Jonathan Street

London SE11 5NH