In the first part of a series looking at the state of our High Streets, David Sillito visited Fenny Stratford to see how local people have been affected by recent changes.
By David Sillito
Has the car killed the high street?
Are our High Streets dying a slow death - or simply evolving into something different?
The local High Street is about more than business.
A town centre for many is the heart of a community. Shops and services provide more than just a convenient place to pick up a pint of milk or a newspaper.
This week sees the second reading of the Sustainable Communities Bill, designed to give local people a say in supporting and developing their own community.
Aylesbury Street in Fenny Stratford, in Buckinghamshire, used to be a typical market town High Street. It had all the shops you'd expect: two butchers, a greengrocer, a chemist, a gents' outfitter, a newsagent, a post office and an ironmonger.
But things have changed.
I set Damon Le Geyt, from the local business association, a challenge. He had half an hour to buy a pair of socks, a pound of onions and two chops, post a parcel and pick up a prescription on his High Street.
We managed only one task - posting a parcel. Once we left Aylesbury Street we did eventually find a convenience store that could offer us some onions and chops, but that was as far as we got.
The shop was run by Neil Odedra who had come to Fenny Stratford from East Africa more than 20 years ago.
"It's sad. You used to know everyone. I think that's why we get the crime we do," he says.
It doesn't look like a place coping with much in the way of crime but the feeling is there.
Back on Aylesbury Street, Damon Le Geyt was equally concerned.
"We trade mostly with businesses and people from all over. My shop is really just a showroom, a place to sit, there's no passing trade," he says.
But the shops aren't empty.
Lots of new enterprises have sprung up, it is a model of 21st Century retail innovation.
There is one shop selling fancy dress clothes, another erotic lingerie, then there's a
craft shop, a place that specialises in posh clothes for children, a party goods supplier, a series of
takeaways, a florist and a plumbers merchant.
Mr Le Geyt says all that's really missing these days is people.
"It's the faceless society. We've all become anonymous users of out of town shopping centres. Some
people living here don't even know this is Fenny Stratford," he says.
So what's happened?
Fenny Stratford is on the edge of Milton Keynes, a town built for cars and supermarkets.
Locals struggle to find what they need on the high street
Tesco, Asda, Matalan and dozens of other huge stores are all just a few minutes away by car.
Any sense that Fenny Stratford is the heart of a community has been lost.
Cars flit by with people rushing in to a shop or picking up a takeaway. The only place in the street we saw a conversation take place was outside the post office.
And some residents wonder how long it will manage to survive.
Meanwhile, in nearby Bletchley there is much more life and a plan to revive the town. Even so, the shoppers were grumbling that it wasn't what it once was.
There's no doubt that you can buy all the essentials, but the clientele is made up largely of the elderly and people on low incomes - the people who struggle to make it to the out of town stores.
It was the feel of the place rather than the number of shops that affected people.
Closing down sales, pound shops and businesses that last only a few months all added to some of the gloomy comments.
Sense of place
However, there is one survivor from the past, a shop that reminds you what service could be.
Damon Le Geyt believes a sense of local identity is missing
John Pollard's family first set up their ironmongers in Bletchley in the 1920s.
These days they deal with trade more than the general public but it is still the
sort of place you can walk in with a screw and they will find you a nut to match it.
Before Christmas, customers were offered a warm mince pie and a coffee
while the startlingly well-informed staff ran around the Grade II listed shop.
Talking to some people in the area they mentioned Pollards in the way you might
talk about a beautiful old church or a beauty spot.
It was one of the things that people were proud of, that made a place unique.
The problem is that while many of us like these places to exist, convenience often takes us elsewhere.
Mr Le Geyt said it boiled down to one thing.
"You need the basics in a street to bring in the people, make it feel like somewhere."