The local veg box or milk delivery is becoming an increasingly familiar sight as demand grows driven by the pandemic and lockdown. Will this just be a short spike in trade or will Covid-19 and the limitations it has placed on us perhaps accelerate a revival of our local retail habits?
HOW IT WAS
The painted sign above the door read: ‘Cornelius Bell, Off Licence and Grocers’. This was our Ian Bell’s grandfather who in 1953 moved three generations of his family from a North-East mining community to the Midlands. They were one of 14 retail businesses in a village where you could get your hair cut, your horse shod, your boots repaired and choose your coffin. They also served the smaller surrounding villages, hamlets and estates. These local businesses enjoyed a long period of sustainable trade until a supermarket opened up in the nearest town.
The village traders harshly heaped all the blame for the demise of their businesses directly on the cost cutting behemoth. But in reality, their market had changed; they had become a low-value agricultural economy, a dormant settlement. As farms became mechanised, retiring farm workers were not replaced but continued to live in the village. Young couples moved to the larger town to find jobs, homes and to start a family. There was very poor connectivity (buses not broadband!), and the old money in the big houses were clobbered by death duties and the collapse of their Lloyds Syndicate.
It is a huge contrast to visit that same village today. There are now no farms in the village; all the farmyards have been developed into residential properties, along with other sites on the periphery of the village. There is a thriving primary school as younger families settle into new homes, and a new doctor’s surgery and pharmacy – it is again becoming a vibrant settlement. The buses still don’t come but the broadband is great! The nearest railway station has a direct train to St Pancras every working day, leaving at 6am and returning at 7.30pm. Households now have above average incomes and the big houses now belong to city traders and footballers, regularly employing an army of self-employed craftsman.
And with the advent of coronavirus, the biggest change is so many people are now working from home. Now home-life and work-life have to remain local and everyone is travelling shorter distances to only shop locally (while observing social distancing rules of course).
Who knows what will come afterwards. Let’s ponder for a moment.
HOW IT COULD BE
What if this drastic change in everyone’s working habits results in many firms deciding that more of their staff could efficiently work remotely. And what if everyone has a renewed appreciation for the resources and facilities right there on their doorstep. And what if the local businesses, who so admirably stepped up by pivoting to continue to provide for their customers by switching to phone or online ordering and offering home delivery, have garnered a new loyal following. Might this combination of reawakened attitudes see fresh life being breathed into our rural communities and economies? Might we see what has become a low-value agricultural economy evolve into a high-value digital economy?
We for one, hope the country emerges from its coronavirus epoch with a renewed interest in a rural retail revival.