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Monday, 16 December, 2002, 00:14 GMT
Rural decline threatens 'ghost town Britain'
Wheathampstead village centre
Wheathampstead has seen many shops close

Many of the UK's rural centres are destined to become ghost towns, according to a new report. BBC News Online visited one Hertfordshire village trying to stop the slide into decline.

First impressions of Wheathampstead are of an affluent and neatly manicured, picture-postcard style village.

However, look a little more closely and there are visible signs of fading grandeur.

Former shop signs remain intact, but the buildings beneath are boarded up and no-one is queuing up to take over where the previous owners left off.

The village's last bank closed three years ago - with just a Barclays cash point machine in the wall as a reminder of what used to be.

Councillor Chris Oxley
Chris Oxley: Ghost village threat is real
Locals have seen businesses come and go and some are worried the village is losing some of the key ingredients that contribute to its character.

"Unless the local community, including the local authority, takes firm action to stem the slide, then I fear Wheathampstead and many other villages will continue to become more and more like ghost villages," said Liberal Democrat district councillor Chris Oxley.

"We are slowly but surely seeing our village centre dying off."

Downward slide

His views concur with a report published on Monday by the New Economics Foundation (NEF) think tank, which shows the perilous state of local economies across the country.

It reveals that between 1995 and 2000, the UK lost 20% of some of its most vital institutions: corner shops, grocers, high street banks, post offices and pubs.

The cumulative loss equates to more than 30,000 local economic outlets.

My fear is that Wheathampstead will become one more dormitory

Gill Clark

A further 28,000 shops and businesses are likely to disappear by 2005.

The Foundation suggests that if current trends continue, the number of local outlets will have dropped by nearly a third in the two decades to 2010.

Wheathampstead is a good marker for such changes.

The Midland Bank closed 10 years ago and has been replaced by an estate agency.

Local and expensive

The village's hardware shop closed 12 years ago. A dress shop came in its place, but closed six months ago and still stands empty.

The village store closed six months ago, and though there is a mini-market on the high street, some locals are reluctant to shop there because they say it is too expensive.

Its greengrocer closed two years ago. The newsagent shut its doors 12 months ago and Helmets - a factory employing 200 people - closed six months ago.

Closed shop
Closed shop: A sign of the times:
It has managed to retain the essentials. Alongside the mini-market, there is a high-class, organic butcher, a bakery and a post office, plus several estate agents and a pharmacy.

And the village is growing with 150 new homes built over the last 10 years, to swell the population to about 7,000.

The village is roughly split 50/50 between a wealthy group of two-car families and a less affluent group living on a large housing estate.

The car-owning class can travel to the local out-of-town supermarkets, but others, including the elderly and single-parent families have to rely on public transport, which leaves a lot to be desired.

Working together

District and parish Conservative councillor Gill Clark said: "You lose some shops and people go elsewhere to do their shopping and then other shops fade.

"My fear is that in 10 years Wheathampstead will become one more dormitory."

Valerie Day has seen many changes in the 27 years she has lived in the village.

However, she said: "I don't feel I'm living in a ghost town.

"We do miss the old shops. The mini-market is expensive and doesn't always have what you want."

But the picture is not all doom and gloom. Although the youth club closed down six years ago, a new community centre opened four years ago to cater for lots of different groups and activities.

A local girls' school is relocating to the village, which may bring in more passing trade, and the council is working hard to stop any further slide into decline.

Mr Oxley said: "The parish and district councils are now working together and I believe there is an improving relationship between the various layers of councils.

"Right across the board things need to change and improve."

However the NEF is less optimistic.

The report says the "much-touted local retail renaissance" will fail to counteract the forces driving the country towards "ghost town Britain" unless the government tackles the real reasons lying behind the decline.

It identifies these as:

  • market domination by and preferential policy treatment of supermarkets
  • the "downsizing" of banks and post offices
  • transport systems that encourage car travel
  • weak and flawed planning controls
  • lack of support for truly local enterprise.

    The BBC's Nicola Carslaw
    "Ghost towns are haunting local economies"
    See also:

    20 Sep 02 | UK
    18 Jul 02 | Politics
    20 Mar 02 | England
    16 Jan 01 | UK
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