Opinion: 'Greed is behind town centre decline'

Holt town centre.

Holt town centre. - Credit: Archant

In his latest column, Cromer resident Peter Smith reflects on the forces that lead to the decline of towns and cities. 

'It’s a pity' is a phrase one doesn’t hear as often as one used to. It comes to mind for me right now because I enjoy any play on words, and this essay could be called A Tale of Two Pities, except for the fact that one of the cities is a small town.

Peter Smith, from Cromer.

Peter Smith, from Cromer. - Credit: Supplied

On the other hand, 'It’s a pity' applies to both.

In my opinion it’s a pity that Barclays has decided to close the last bank in Holt, in spite of the fact that the bank turned a net profit of £6.8 billion pounds last year.

A scene from the city of Buffalo in New York state, USA.

A scene from the city of Buffalo in New York state, USA. - Credit: Jason Paris

As I say, Holt is not a city but Buffalo in the state of New York is, and it’s in Buffalo that I lived for 20 years before moving to Cromer in the autumn of 2019. I ought perhaps to add that the first time I saw Holt was in 1936.

There’s a big difference though: Holt is thriving as never before whereas Buffalo has seen better days.

In fact in the early 20th Century Buffalo was the fifth busiest port in the world. Then the Welland Canal was created and all the ships carrying stuff from the centre of the United States to the Atlantic made use of it.

The Barclays branch in High Street, Holt, will close later this year.

The Barclays branch in High Street, Holt, will close later this year. - Credit: Google StreetView

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The coup de grace came in the 1983 when the Bethlehem Steel Company - during the Second World War the largest steel producer in the world - was closed down with the loss of 20,000 jobs.

So what links an American rust belt city of 280,000 to a quiet market town in Norfolk where 3,800 people live?

I believe the phrase 'insufficiently profitable' has something to do with that. 

I lived in a neighbourhood in Buffalo, home to about 4,000 people. It was served by one supermarket.

That is to say, there was a supermarket that people like me – without a car – could walk to easily.

I was carless because I had had an accident when I was 75 and decided that it was time to give up driving; many other people were carless because they didn’t have the wherewithal to buy one and maintain it.

I was not the only old person among its customers. One day the supermarket closed, leaving me and hundreds of other people without a handy place to shop for groceries.

Now we come to the link between Holt and Buffalo. In both cases an establishment was shut down not because it was losing money but because it was not sufficiently profitable.

To ordinary people like you and me that concept doesn’t make sense.

We do understand that supermarkets and banks, like all corporations want to maximise their profits, but shutting down an amenity because it isn’t making enough money is perverse.

Who is to decide when it’s not enough? And what about the fallout or - to use a phrase from Vietnam – the collateral damage?

I was in touch with our local MP, Duncan Baker, and he shared with me the very eloquent letter he wrote to Barclays in which he made the strongest possible case for keep the branch open, but his letter acknowledges the fact that it is not going to change anything.

My own recent trips to the Lloyds in Cromer have reminded me that personal contact is something that makes all the difference – I have needed help several times and ever time I go I find that I am not the only customer there.

I can’t see any reason why the Holt Barclays is different. But presumably it doesn’t matter to the decision-makers in London.

When it comes right down to it not sufficiently profitable is just another way of referring to greed.

On the absence of tip jars and tipping

I talked about this in an earlier column, and I am glad to say that it’s my observation that the cost of living crisis has not had any obvious negative effect on what’s in the various tip jars I check out. But I am sorry to have to add that there still isn’t one at Mary Janes.

A tip jar. Peter Smith believes the practice of tipping in shops should be more common. 

A tip jar. Peter Smith believes the practice of tipping in shops should be more common. - Credit: Peter Smith

Referring to another of my past columns, on the 'holes in the fabric' of Cromer, it seems the 1,200 square feet of space where the the town's JB Postle electrical store used to be is still unoccupied.

My greengrocer Nigel asked me a good question – what does Cromer need that it hasn’t already got? Surely not another deli?

The answer might be a hardware shop like the one we used to have in the space where the excellent Fig and Olive delicatessen now sits.

Or a shop that sells major electrical appliances – but Postle’s presumably found that it was not sufficiently profitable, given that they have branches in Aylsham and Sheringham.

I find myself wondering whether that empty shop at 62 Church Street will become the Cromer equivalent of the Debenham’s in Norwich – an empty space that’s going to stay empty.

I wonder the same thing about the Dunstable Arms in Sheringham – where an opportunity exists which no one wants to take on. The dynamics of city and town life will presumably adjust as time goes by.

We may have to get used to the holes in the fabric of our communities.