How to save our high streets? The answer is in the church

I have just had my first Alexa experience. It was in Los Angeles and it was eerie and rather charming. There is no doubt “she” vastly simplifies a range of trivial tasks. To the lonely, she is apparently comforting, like a pet, and with “empathy” increasingly built in, is growing ever more so. But she is clearly driving a nail ever further into the coffin of the classic concept of shopping. Who needs to drive through hellish traffic to a bleak mall when not just your laptop but “Alexa, get me …” will do the trick?

The American high street is dying as surely as in Britain, where Christmas has highlighted another disastrous year for sales. Analysts report that in the UK, the number of shoppers on the high street is down 4.2% on last year. Shopping centres were hardest hit, with turnout falling by 6.7%. The trend has gone from cyclical to critical. My local high street in London has the desperate air of lifeboats floundering as the ship begins to sink.

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This is not just to do with the advent of digital shopping. It is 20 years since the “experience economy” was invented by Joseph Pine and James Gilmore in the Harvard Business Review. They identified a long-term trend in personal spending, from ever cheaper and more reliable consumer goods: first to services such as advice, learning and health; and then to experiences, such as fitness, entertainment, eating and all forms of travel. Experiences, they said, would become a “distinct economic offering, as different from services as services are from goods”.

All this has come to pass. Spending on bars and restaurants, live entertainment, exercise and, above all, travel continues to soar. So, too, has the money going into simply meeting people, the so-called Tinder economy. The “power of live” is at the core of the post‑digital world. But what has not happened is any change in the physical framework, literally the streets and buildings, where such experiences used to occur. The high street, the traditional forum of the community, is losing its role.

I cannot rid my mind of its predecessor in this role, the parish church. These magnificent buildings litter every town and village, most of the time lying gaunt and unused. They are now being joined by the shuttered grocer and the defunct hardware store as symbols of a lost social cohesion. If Thomas Gray were to write his churchyard elegy today – “and leaves the world to darkness and to me” – he would surely move down the road to the high street.

Belonging, the current BBC Radio 4 series by Douglas Alexander, is showing how this declining sense of locality is changing more than the economics of a place. It is becoming political. By sucking the oxygen out of community, it sends people retreating to their residual identities. There they are spared any obligation to get on with their neighbours, to socialise and compromise. Hence the Brexit obsession with “taking back control”.

It is plain that the social evils now being so intensely debated result from this disintegration of community, and the evils of isolation, homelessness, mental illness and gang culture. The concept of local discipline is dying, as is that of a local leader. How many people truly feel their own experience is reflected by the cosiness of the Archers? Alexa is the new Ambridge.

Until a century ago, the church was the fulcrum of such a community. It was the fount of education, welfare and local participation, the rock on which the ideal of localism rested. That rock was replaced by all that was meant by the high street, a congeries of town halls, shops, clinics, banks, police stations, libraries. It is vanishing.

There is no loss of vitality in the desire to congregate. The traffic on the M1 or a Los Angeles freeway is craving somewhere to go and something to do – the so-called “doing-not-buying economy”. But the congregation it seeks is one of brief affinities, not lasting communities. It is anonymous and dispersed.

Since there is no point in defying change, the question is whether such activities can be localised. As the acquisition of goods and services goes online, can local experiences replace them? Since the essence of human experience is contact with other people, the answer must surely be yes, if we help it to happen.

The liveliest high streets I know are lined with coffee bars, beauty parlours, gyms and travel agents. The most celebrated “high street” in Los Angeles, Abbot Kinney Street, is just such a place – busy with health clubs, art galleries and now a cannabis boutique. Britain’s high streets are increasingly “alternative”, the charity shops in reality recycling plants. Some people even claim to take more goods to shops than they buy from them.

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With painful slowness, churches are emerging as secular meeting places. Thirty-five are already listed as post offices, others as bookshops, day centres and pick-up points for online shopping. They are starting to fill gaps left by the departure of other local services. One charity has turned a church in Ipswich into the local psychotherapy centre, an “experience” function that might be said to echo its original one.

A high street is a community working. But government must be hypersensitive to its purpose. These places face an existential crisis. It is unbelievable that Whitehall can bias both taxation and planning decisions against them, in favour of housing. Houses will never build coherent societies without high streets. The issue is the weight democracy attaches to locality as against nationality. As the former House of Representatives speaker Tip O’Neill said, all politics is local. But so is all community.

Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist

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