In looking at how to rebuild the economy, fundamentals need rethinking, and that includes the high street. Speaking last week at the annual Co-operative Congress I found surprising, welcome heretical thoughts percolating up through the membership. "How should we change our model, so that we are not just selling more stuff and promoting consumption for its own sake," asked one. "How can the co-operative movement engage with transition towns," asked another?
Behind the questioning was a big thought. Can high streets become more than places where we go to shop, and can shops become places where we do more than simply buy things? For example, what if the shop of the future had only some of its space given over to shifting goods, and the rest of the space reserved for trading the skills and knowledge to make, maintain, repair, share, re-use and recycle things? Tiny gesture as it might be, Fiona Reynolds, head of the National Trust, pointed out that B&Q was already looking into leasing, rather than just selling, tools.
The degradation of the high street in the face of the economic slowdown and unfair competition from the big supermarkets has big economic and social costs. A vibrant, local economy is the place where community (dare I say the "big society"?) gets built. When denuded the opposite happens. But why can't we rebuild the high street so that it is better than before, and make it a place where we not only shop, but learn, do, share and interact.