Back in the late 1970s / early 1980s a chap called Alvin Toffler explained why heavy volume manufacturing in the UK was over; as trade tariffs crumbled and global markets grew, manufacturing would move to places where the factor costs of land, labour, power and raw materials were lowest. The future for the West was the knowledge economy, he wrote, and post-Fordist niche production. Skills portability would be critical in maintaining full employment as we moved from a job-for-life deal from a single employer to one in which employers equipped employees with training and skills to ensure they would be employed for life. And all this more than a decade before the invention of the internet.
Now that we're deeply into the territory foreseen by Toffler the mistakes we've made in adapting to structural change are clearer. Central Statist governments have poured a tsunami of wealth into slowing the loss of mass manufacturing when such resources could have been more competitively used for creating and maintaining knowledge economy infrastructure. Employers have become free-riders in the absence of compulsory training levies; instead of equipping staff as knowledge workers, firms have substituted IT systems. Instead of wider wealth distribution we've seen a greater concentration of wealth amongst very large global corporations. And the rise of e-commerce enabled producer-consumerism has seen the abandonment of the High Street by retailers who used to be the middlemen between consumers and producers / wholesalers.
But in Suffolk's little market towns over Christmas I saw signs that the High Street isn't dead, but in a process of change. The home-knitter who started buying wool in bulk and selling the surplus on eBay has now filled a shop-front with bright balls of wool and irresistible baby garments as a boost to her eBay shop; the ironmongers founded in 1823 that have gained new life by putting 6,000 of their 40,000 stock lines on the web, the farm-direct shop also with its own website, the shop window filled with old planes and woodworking tools from a collector and dealer who also operates on eBay, only opens the shop erratically but mans the computer in his workshop to the rear for about 16 hours a day. Thankfully most such towns are either conservation areas or the existing shops are listed, preventing the removal of the large ground floor display windows. Thus even when an ex-shop goes through a residential phase, it can always be resurrected as a shop.
And this I think is the future for the High Street - small, perhaps part-time niche producers perhaps also with a part-time job elsewhere, with a web-outlet, offering a parade of fascinating and well-dressed shop windows providing a visual feast of curiosities to strollers-by, and thereby maintaining the all-important footfall that keeps the chemist, the baker and the newsagents alive.