"There’s no reason for us to go to town," says 13-year-old Mandisa-Iman Thompson. "There’s hardly any places for us to eat and all the shops have closed down."
When you think of Southend-on-Sea, a seaside town roughly 50 miles east of London, you think of the beach, doughnuts and Rossi's ice cream, as well as Adventure Island, the amusement park located on the seafront. But just a stone's throw away is a high street that has steadily declined over the last few years.
I spent my teenage years collecting happy memories there, hanging out on the high street every weekend with my friends. Now I'm 26 and it's become a ghost town, with household name shops replaced by mobile phone pop-ups and a sprinkling of charity shops.
We read all the time about the "death of the high street" and with more details emerging daily of yet more closures and businesses heading for administration, it's almost impossible to imagine the UK high streets ever being as busy as they were when I was hanging out on them.
Last week, the British Retail Consortium stuck one last thorn in the high street's already sore side, estimating that 85,000 jobs have vanished from the high street compared to a year ago. This follows the recent finding that the proportion of shops sitting empty is now at more than 10%.
Over the last few years, we’ve seen high streets across the UK steadily decline. In 2018 alone, a large number of retailers went bust, including Poundworld, Maplin, Toys R Us and even Homebase, leaving many town centres feeling deserted. Last year saw Topshop tycoon Sir Philip Green close 23 stores across the UK, while womenswear brand Bonmarché last week collapsed, putting 2,900 jobs at risk. The pressure is on: many retailers are struggling to battle fierce overheads with falling demand as consumers shift to online shopping.
But what is left for young people living in regional towns across the UK and how has it changed for them in the last decade?
Twenty-four-year-old Storm Thompson, who grew up in Southend but now lives in London, used to spend her weekends with her friends shopping in the town. Her 13-year-old sister, Mandisa-Iman, is still there and has a different experience. We spoke to them to find out what has changed in a generation, and what the UK high street and its shops mean to them.
Let's talk about Southend High Street. What was that place like for you growing up?
Storm: Southend was the place to hang out with my friends. I would beg my parents to go there because that was where you met other young people. Growing up we had Orange Wednesdays so me and my friends would go to the cinema every week when I was a teenager.
There's nothing there for people my age.
Mandisa: I don’t really go to the high street these days. I went to town last week with my friends because we wanted to go to Creams [an ice cream parlour]. We don’t really make it a thing to go to town for the day. Last year we only went to town twice, once because it was Mother’s Day and we needed to get a card and present, and the other time because we had nothing else to do. There's nothing there for people my age.
I find that so interesting because when I was your age, I used to go to town every weekend. It was the highlight of the week, like it was for Storm. We would stand by the clock – which is no longer there – and either go for coffee or go shopping for the day. Why do you think you and your friends don’t do that, Mandisa?
M: It’s not really exciting. There’s no reason for us to go there. There’s hardly any places to eat and they’ve taken away all the good shops. It’s not very nice and it’s not somewhere I want to stay and hang around. We know it used to be nice, but we don’t like it anymore because it’s horrible and dirty.
Southend was the place to hang out with friends. I would beg my parents to go there because that was where you met other young people.
S: I think for Mandisa there are only set places she can go to, like Creams, but there's not much attraction for young people to want to spend time on the high street because there are no shops for them. As I got older I grew to hate the high street because there’s nothing else going on and it can be really depressing. I’d go there for a night out but you still walk down there and think it’s awful.
Which of your favourite shops have closed down?
M: Topshop has closed down. There used to be two H&Ms and now there’s only one.
S: On the high street, we would often go to Primark, H&M and Topshop, but now Topshop has shut down and has been replaced by shops that say 'closing down sales'. All we have now are stores that offer everything for £5 – they are just cheap high street shops. I really miss the Topshop, I'd always pop in there or window shop.
Yeah, I was shocked when Topshop closed down. I used to spend all my time – and money – in there. I noticed that it hasn’t been replaced with anything, it’s just boarded up. Where do you go instead?
M: If I’m in town, I’ll go to Primark. I go to bigger shopping centres such as Lakeside if I want to spend a day shopping with my friends. Sometimes we’ll go to Colchester or Chelmsford because the towns are much cleaner and there are bigger shops. I’ve been to Basildon High Street but it’s so dirty and all the shops have closed down.
You now live in London, Storm. What are the biggest differences for you?
S: In London it’s more diverse and you can really tell the difference. There’s so much variety in the city compared to the regional towns. In Southend, there’s only one dead-end strip and once you’ve walked up and down once, that’s it. You might as well go home. Everything shuts at 4pm or 5pm; apart from hanging around in the streets, there’s nothing there. Whereas London never sleeps. What was special about Southend High Street for me was the age that I was at the time and not having many other places to go, but the high street was the hub.
Do either of you shop online?
M: Yeah, I do. I usually shop on ASOS. The only shop I actually go to is Primark because they don’t have an online shop. There’s also this app called 21 Buttons where people post their outfit on Instagram and link to where they bought it. Often if I see something on Instagram I like, I’ll buy it online.
S: Yeah, I'll shop on ASOS usually but if I need something like a pair of tights I'll pop to the nearest shop on the high street or a shopping centre.
British high streets have been declared 'dead' over the years. Why do you think this is?
S: Maybe because shopping centres have taken over. A lot of young people would rather go on Boohoo and PrettyLittleThing or ASOS to buy a dress. You can get anything you want online. Money also has something to do with it. A lot of regional towns don’t have the money and councils aren’t willing to put money into the high streets.
What would you change about the high street?
M: I would bring back all the shops. I would also have more places to eat. We have two McDonald’s, which isn’t very healthy. That’s really the only place available on the high street. There are markets every so often but no one really goes to them. They’re not there for young people.
S: I agree. I don’t like the limitations of the high street at the moment, it’s clear young people don’t have enough there. When I go home to Southend I rarely feel inspired to go there. I don’t like that there’s nothing window shopping-worthy. It’s sad but at the same time there are other areas around [and] because of the growth of technology, young people are more dependent on online shopping. The only downside to this is the fact you don’t get the social community aspect of shopping on a high street with your friends. Kids will hang out anyway, but imagine going to university in Southend – there’s nothing there.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.