HIGH streets in market towns have been struggling for years. Covid has added to the economic blow, but, looking forward, that may not be the whole story. As life starts to emerge from the pandemic mist, a future may be revealed with two elements, for high streets and also for the mission of the Church: restart and start-up.
The strings of commuter vehicles leaving the Fenland towns for Cambridge and Peterborough have largely disappeared. This reflects temporary furlough, but the home-working effect is also significant.
Not only work, but also entertainment and big-ticket shopping have all ceased to be reasons to travel to larger centres. People who may have slept in the local town, but worked and belonged emotionally in the city, are now discovering new connections with local landmarks and home communities. Suddenly, the high street might just be about to discover a new relevance — not as a place to shop, but as a place to meet and belong.
When home workers tramp the streets for their daily exercise, the businesses that they are longing to see reopened are independent retailers and places to meet. As lockdown eases, the first meal or coffee is likely to be close to home.
Economically, restart is going to be linked to a fresh appreciation of local shops, social facilities, and sports clubs. It is likely that this emotional impact will not be the only lasting change. In the long term, commuting to large urban areas (Cambridge and Peterborough, in my setting) will not make a full return, and home working will continue at least in part, reinforcing the local focus to life.
Sadly, some big chains have pulled out of market towns, and many businesses have failed. This change might, in itself, contain the potential for hope. Empty premises and more people looking for local signs of life give significant potential for a reinvigorated start-up economy to replace those activities that are no longer there to restart.
Business-rate exemptions give an encouraging incentive to this. In the market town of Chatteris, the building that once housed the TSB is now a locally owned coffee shop. Other local start-ups are likely to follow in similar towns across the country.
FOR churches in market towns, and maybe especially for churches with a high-street presence, post-Covid restart and start-up could both prove significant. Home workers may simply have become far more aware of the physical presence of a church building, including access for private prayer in those daytime hours that were previously in the office. Attractive noticeboards and open church doors will have been seen close up, and not only through a car window.
Evenings will start to open out to a length that they have not previously offered. Church events that were previously hampered by time pressure will suddenly become more easily accessible. The “too busy to get to an Alpha meal by 7 p.m.” person will find that they are not only free, but actually desperate to get out of the house by well before 7 p.m. And the annual children’s holiday club is almost certain to gain an extra glow when seen from the perspective of home-working parents as the school term ends.
All this will be set in an important context. The positive impact of foodbanks and of other practical support from churches in their communities provides the potential for new receptivity to invitations to explore faith, even among those previously cynical about the Church’s place in contemporary life.
Alongside restart, start-up will be increasingly important in churches’ mission. It may well involve deliberate support for the start-up businesses themselves — using the new coffee shop for a regular church group to meet, for example, or to provide catering for a new lunchtime service.
BUT the recognition of the presence of a new demographic of working age in the town centre during the day could have far-reaching implications.
Besides the likelihood of a mental-health “tsunami” after lockdown, the loss of in-person colleague relationships has been identified by the Centre for Towns as a downside of home working. There will be considerable scope and need for churches — often with buildings on high streets — to provide meeting and networking space as town parishes rediscover their part to play in the emerging economy.
The future will not be a rerun of the past in small towns. If ever it had been possible to hold on to a dream of returning high streets to how they used to be, that desire must now be left decisively behind.
But, at the same time, new work patterns and fresh economic realities mean that small-town mission may be about to enter a new era of opportunity, if churches are ready to step out with confidence.
Canon Mike Booker is the Bishop’s Change Officer for Market Towns in Ely diocese.