After viewing a wedding venue on the outskirts of Carmarthen and being tired out by my family’s rather energetic new puppy, I must admit when the fiancée wanted to go to Boots to get something I was planning an in and out affair. But alas it is never usually the way and instead it would be the start of a shopping expedition in the town centre, made more bearable with my partner dangling the carrot of a flat white at the end of it. And to be fair, I needed new shoes.
My last visit to Carmarthen town centre was some time ago- a town centre I am very familiar with. I worked as a Saturday boy at the Marks and Spencer there, I fondly remember many cinema trips to the Apollo cinema in my mid-to-late teens and of course stuffing my face in Toby Carvery.
Carmarthen’s development over the last 10 years had emerged into something of a regional hub, attracting visitors from Pembrokeshire and Ceredigion as well as broader Carmarthenshire as well as people fed up with clogged up car parks in the Trostre retail park in Llanelli and to escape Swansea. Topshop, Miss Selfridge, River Island, Debenhams, Prezzo, Frankies and Bennies, Fat Face are just some of the outlets to have brought their business to Carmarthen in the last decade or so.
However, last Saturday was a bleaker affair. Topshop and Miss Selfridge’s unit was empty. As was the Apple store. River Island were embarking on a closing down sale as was Fat Face and this once-popular shopping precinct resembled something of an eerie, sleepy and dying town. Even longer-standing businesses such as Monsoon and Accessorize has closed, and for some reason it had escaped me that Mothercare had closed but apparently this was some time ago. Debenhams just about hangs on but uncertainty has been over the business for sometime.
I am of course emotionally invested in the town, and due to this attachment I perhaps may not be in the best position to offer an objective analysis of our high streets. However, it feels like a snapshot of what could happen to our high streets more broadly. Covid is the catalyst for businesses pulling out of towns but it has merely accelerated the inevitable shift online. The Chancellor Rishi Sunak has in the past said Britain was uniquely hurt by the consequences of lockdown due to our economy being consumption-led. This however doesn’t just pose unique challenges during covid but beyond. We are now shopping more and more on the web- the pace of change not entirely predictable when these businesses arrived in Carmarthen just 10 years ago. And when shoppers want to feel the product, we go to central destinations in big retail parks with free parking. Add in a deadly pandemic and you have a deadly concoction for the high street.
Local authorities, local communities and yes government needs to engage with the question- what do we want our towns to be? They need to become a broader experience that you cannot get online. It must go beyond touching, feeling and trying garments on. But with the same-old figures that occupy town and county halls and the corridors of Cardiff Bay, I fear for the future. Elections in 2021 and 2022 may be the final chance to save the high street.