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If Shops Could TAlk: What My High Street Tells Me About The True Cost Of The Financial Crisis
Updated 7 September 2012 Written by David Barclay
Buildings say a lot about us. Living in China for the past year was sometimes a very depressing experience, as the monotone grey skyscrapers and imposing Government buildings convey very clearly the relentless drive to conformity and the overbearing projections of state power that mark that society. Coming home to the UK and moving to London then was something of a breath of fresh air – 60’s monstrosities apart we are privileged to live in a country with such varied and beautiful architecture. Walking along my new high street in Bethnal Green, however, has shown me that the businesses inside our buildings present a much gloomier side to today’s British society.
It all starts off so promisingly when you turn out of my street and onto Bethnal Green Road. The first impression is of a thriving multicultural community - Turkish and Bengali groceries sitting next to Chinese-Indian fusion restaurants and Sari shops. Soon, however, you hit the local butcher opposite the Tesco with its pleading signs urging shoppers not to give in to the multinationals. From then on the picture is out-and-out thoroughly depressing. Takeaway food shops of every shape and size offer cut-price deals on the fast-track to obesity. Squeezed in between are a terrifying number of pawn shops and payday lenders, all promising cheap and easy loans at carefully concealed extortionate interest rates. Any space that’s left is then occupied by the ubiquitous betting shop where you can gamble away your hard earned cash or newly acquired loan almost any time of the day or night - it has been one of the very few dampeners of my Olympic high to notice that the local betting shop was offering the chance to have a flutter on every single Olympic event.
The shock this gives a newcomer like me is not just that of being confronted with poverty and deprivation – that much I expected of an area that one hundred years ago was unquestionably one of the poorest places in the country (just a few hundred yards from Bethnal Green Road lie the first ever Council Houses built in the UK to tackle these extreme conditions). No the really frightening image is of a community twisted and distorted towards the very worst of human impulses by the forces of the market. What most of the shops of Bethnal Green Road have in common is their invitation (usually dressed up in catchy slogans and special offers) to destroy yourself – whether through unhealthy food, addictive gambling or spirals of unmanageable and exploitative sub-prime credit. All trade on greed or desperation, and it seems to be pretty good business these days with not much to restrain or oppose it.
In the fallout from the Financial Crisis, there has been much discussion of the structural and moral bankruptcy of our economic system. A succession of scandals have convinced most people that bankers, traders and politicians neither know nor care what state their actions have left the poorest communities in. Four years on, and very few answers have emerged from the top about how we rebuild our broken economy and renew our local areas.
Perhaps then it’s time for people closer to the bottom to come together and take control for themselves of what their High Streets say about them. London Citizens have been building alliances across civil society groups like schools, trade unions and churches to campaign together on issues of the common good such as street safety, affordable housing and the Living Wage. They’ve already won over £90 million for the lowest paid workers who were fed up of being told that market economics dictated that they couldn’t be paid enough to be able to support their families. Now a new campaign is starting around the issues of personal debt, the banks and the High Street. By harnessing the power of ordinary people we can stamp out the exploitation of legal loan sharks who trap people in debt. We can make demands of the national banks to invest in the people and companies who make up their local communities, and to partner with credit unions and others working to provide positive sources of investment for better businesses. And then we can start to build High Streets we can be proud of, High Streets that reflect the best of us and not the worst.
To find out more about the campaign and how you can get involved, email firstname.lastname@example.org
David Barclay, 07/09/2012