There’s no choice but to diversify - MP for Peterborough Fiona Onasanya

Fiona Onasanya column
Fiona Onasanya column
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Idon’t think anyone was particularly shocked when Marks &Spencer said they were going to close over 100 stores by 2022. It’s still unclear what this will mean for Peterborough, will either the store at the Brotherhood Retail Park or in Queensgate go? Or both? My office and I are keenly watching developments as they unfold.

This represents yet another “retreat from the high street”: already, we’ve seen Toys R Us and Maplin close. Many other retailers are in trouble. It is often much cheaper for people to buy online; furthermore, why bother driving into the middle of town, go through the pain of trying to find a place to park, and then go wandering through the shopping centre, when you can find anything and everything you want with the click of a mouse?

I am deeply concerned by this development: many people in Peterborough make their living via retail. Then there are the ancillary businesses: there are the people who clean and maintain the stores. There’s the electricians who install the lights and the plumbers who clear the drains. There’s also the coffee shops and restaurants who serve the needs of the hungry shoppers.

Peterborough made a large bet on shopping being a primary driver of the local economy: with Brotherhood, Queensgate and Riverside, we are very well set up for it. This worked, to an extent, so long as the shoppers were there: even an economic downturn was not necessarily a long-term problem, so long as the patterns of shopping continued, it still had the potential to drive employment and growth. Technology, however, is causing this strategy to quickly unravel.

The government lauds our current economic growth figures: however, there are deeper truths that hide behind our seemingly low unemployment. We’ve borrowed a lot: according to figures published by the Money Charity in March, total UK personal debt reached £1.576 trillion, which translates to £57,943 per household. We borrowed to spend in the shops.

If that recirculated back to staff in the form of wages, then there was some benefit, albeit there would be an end point to how long this could be sustained. However, if we are buying from elsewhere, then the benefits to the local economy are limited. The Toys R Us on Bourges Boulevard may find it difficult to find another tenant: those who worked there may find replacement jobs hard to come by.

I believe in always having a backup plan. The problem is, I don’t see one.

The government bet the country’s future prospects on services, shopping and property. However, in order to pay our way in the world we’ll need to return to the basics: making products to ship abroad, producing world leading designs, leading in technologies like renewable energy and new materials like graphene.

It’s not as easy as pedestrianising a street and getting a chain store to set up an outlet.

But as the future is fast approaching, we have no choice but to diversify.