Page last updated at 11:16 GMT, Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Retailers find it hard to cash in on the future

By Nick Garnett
BBC Radio 5 live, Barnsley, south Yorkshire

Barnsley town centre
Pawn brokers are one store on the High Street doing well

In 2003 the Stirling prize-winning architect Will Allsop came up with plans to radically rebuild the centre of Barnsley.

A 60ft 'halo' of light would fill the sky above a 'living wall' of shops and offices and the south Yorkshire town centre was to be reborn as a Tuscan-style hilltop village.

Seven years on, it is still waiting for it to happen as the glimmer of recovery starts to shine elsewhere.

Barnsley has been highlighted as one of the British towns and cities which will face a hard time climbing out of recession.

The Centre for Cities think tank suggests it needs more small, start-up businesses if it is to build its own micro-economy.

It highlights the fact that almost one in five people in the town have no qualifications.

Tough decisions

Private sector jobs have been lost and not replaced and now is not the time for the public sector to be thinking about job creation as town halls across the country face the prospect of tight budgets and cutbacks.

But is Barnsley still in the grip of recession or is it clawing its own way out?

There is no simple answer.

I've lived in the area for most of my life and have watched Barnsley's highs and lows, and going there this week I found shops managing to stay open despite the downturn.

"There is literally no money to spend, and everyone's surviving on credit cards"
Melanie James, market trader

Shoppers are still spending money, but queues at the pawnbrokers tell the story of the post-Christmas hangover.

Outside one I met Chris who, like so many others, was there to sell.

"I've come in to trade some DVDs and odds and ends I had in the house," he told me.

"Money's quite tight for everybody, particularly for some people in the North of England. That's why there are the queues."

The line of people carrying musical instruments, mobile phones and games consoles snaked up the shop.

I remember hearing that the true sign of recession was when people started selling their televisions - because they would let everything else go before the telly.

There were five LCD TVs in the front window.


Some of those who handed in their goods and took the money they were offered will eventually go back and reclaim their items.

Many won't.

But elsewhere in Barnsley there are signs of improvement.

New shops have opened.

A Littlewoods store, empty and abandoned for years has opened again as a furniture shop.

Major high street chains like Top Shop have moved in and the Alhambra Shopping Centre is busy.

Indeed, Barnsley has fewer closed shop units than many, supposedly more affluent town centres although some shopkeepers in the town are dismayed at the number of charity shops - almost half a dozen in Market Street alone.

Market sign
Credit cards not cash mean market stalls are losing business

Barnsley's market is central to the town in more than just geographical terms.

A 1960s concrete block it may be, but it's busy and bustling.

On Tuesday it's home to the second-hand market where DVD and book sellers cosy-up to mobile phone and furniture stalls.

Melanie James, from Rotherham, sells second-hand nursery goods. There are dozens of prams lined up along with toys and baby monitors.

In times of recession, when money is hard to come by, this must, surely, be the perfect time to be selling pre-owned, cheaper-than-new things like this?


Not so, according to Melanie.

"We only deal in pound notes - we don't have a credit card machine," she says, waiting for customers to pause as they wander by.

"There is literally no money to spend, and everyone's surviving on credit cards.

"The trouble is that people just don't have pounds and pence in their pockets. They've got no cash to come down here and buy things with.

"People are still spending," she says, "but it's in the high street shops and it's all on credit. We can't compete because we don't take credit cards."

And when you watch the people shopping, you see that Melanie is right - the second hand mobile phone stall is deserted while the high street phone shop with its credit agreements is busy.

The market trader selling second-hand gold jewellery is twiddling her thumbs while people crowd around the counter in Argos.

Money is still being spent in Barnsley, but much of it is not in cash.

Where those pound notes will come from is the big question for the town.

The priorities for Barnsley are now job creation and training rather than dreams of Tuscan hillside villages.

That can wait for next year.

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