Volunteers line up for high street fight

Just over a year ago, this magazine carried a letter from Exeter Planning director Paul Barkley bemoaning the closure of the 61-year-old Harbour Bookshop in Dartmouth, South Devon.

The Harbour Bookshop, Dartmouth (pic courtesy Jim Linwood via Flickr)
The Harbour Bookshop, Dartmouth (pic courtesy Jim Linwood via Flickr)

He suggested that internet shopping had caused the loss of the town's only bookshop and observed that many other goods were similarly affected, accelerating the closure of high street outlets. In fact, the prospect of substantial rent rises if national retail chain stores can be attracted may often be more influential. The refurbished unit presently stands empty and available on a prime site at a price that no independent trader is likely to be able to afford.

As Barkley observed, these threats to the vitality of the high street are not at present things that planning can do much about. Even some major adjustments to the Use Classes order would not necessarily offer any help. There is no sense in insisting on uses that are financially unviable and consequently making more shop units vacant. Neither is there any legal basis for discriminating between locally run independent shops and those operating as parts of a chain known to cause unwanted standardisation of high streets nationwide.

Last month, South Devon was the venue for a further twist to this "clone town" debate: the residents of Totnes, just up river from Dartmouth, waged a fierce battle against Costa Coffee to keep the firm out of their high street, claiming that there were 42 local independent outlets serving coffee that would suffer. The campaigning became so forceful that, although the district council ruled that there were no grounds for refusing the application for a change of use, the UK's biggest coffee chain decided to recognise the strength of local feeling and withdrew. A motion pressing the local authority to call for councils to be required by law to "draw up retail diversity plans with the help of their residents" was defeated, but the idea must surely now be considered - as long as a sound basis for such plans can be devised.

All is not gloom, however. Even as Barkley's letter was published, a group of booklovers, grumbling into their pints in the Dartmouth Arms, decided to do something themselves to replace the old bookshop. Within two months and with a lot of generous local support, a not-for-profit co-operative known as Dartmouth Community Bookshop was opened in different, cheaper premises. Constituted as an industrial and provident society, and organised by volunteers with just one paid employee, the model is the same as that promoted by community shop support body the Plunkett Foundation to save threatened village shops. A successful first year selling mainly full-price new books is nearing completion.

Voluntary retailing cannot save high streets, but it could be one activity to consider for special treatment in a shopping diversity plan. Another concern must be rent levels. Nothing less than an army of iconoclastic valuers is needed to ensure that leases reflect the real state of high street trading.

Anthony Fyson is a freelance writer on planning issues and TCPA trustee. He is also chair of the Dartmouth Community Bookshop.

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