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Struggling indies and booming bookmakers: Are Britain's high streets losing their character?

High streets are losing their buzz as bookmakers replace independent stores

From cobbled streets and horse-drawn carts to neon signs and cash machines, Britain's high streets have undoubtedly undergone significant changes throughout their long history.

But while the aesthetics and appearances have drastically transformed, the ideal high street has one enduring feature: a distinctive buzz that draws in shoppers.

However, in recent years this buzz has been on the wane. Metal shutters, wooden boards and empty shops now sit where colourful window displays may once have caught the eye, with the latest figures showing that vacancy rates currently stand at 14.1%.

Battling against the odds

It's a problem that's been exacerbated by the rise of credit services and bookmakers, with many big name financial businesses sweeping in to displace the jewellers, bakers and clothes shops that we'd typically associate with the high street.

In recent years the high street buzz has been on the wane. Metal shutters, wooden boards and empty shops now sit where colourful window displays may once have caught the eye.

In many respects their growth has also helped to mask the true extent of the issues that have blighted independent retailers, as the speed with which they've filled vacant units has glossed over the number of smaller stores that have been emptying.

While much is made of the controversy surrounding the ethical virtues of these businesses, the way betting shops and credit chains are rapidly replacing independent retailers means the traditional face of the high street is being lost - and it's been supplanted by an altogether more cutthroat industry.  

Under threat

The trend hasn't gone unnoticed, and some councils have even attempted to restrict the continued growth of bookmakers in order to protect small shops. Yet despite their efforts, planning minister Nick Boles has privately admitted that new laws will help betting shops overcome any obstacles that local authorities may try to put in their way.

You don't have to look too far for examples of Britain's high streets losing their character. Croydon's longest-running independent nightclub - the Black Sheep Bar - recently announced it will be closing down because of plans to build flats above the venue.

Despite being a popular spot making enough profit to stay afloat, the owners say they've been left with little choice but to shut up shop. A Facebook page lamenting the loss of the bar has already amassed more than 3,000 likes from disappointed punters, and the closure is another example of how small businesses that provide some eccentric high street appeal are suffering.  

Consumers call for independents

It's a sad state of affairs, but while the troubles are clear for all to see, joint research conducted by Groupon and retail analysts Kantar Retail suggests that promoting local stores could be the key to drawing consumers back to brick and mortar locations.

According to the result of the survey, 71% of shoppers would visit their nearest high street more often if there was a greater range of independent shops to choose from. Indeed, only 38% called for the introduction of more chain stores, reflecting the importance consumers attach to local retailers.

The figures are indicative of people's desire for high streets to maintain their identity and character, and if this is to be done then it's vital for independent businesses to receive the support they need.

Ultimately, concerned consumers need to make their wallets do the talking, and initiatives like Small Business Saturday encourage them to do just that. It's important that momentum is not lost if the British public wants to stem the tide of betting shops and pawnbrokers that are slowly eroding the charisma of the high street.

Image credit: Alan Stanton