The High Street

Philip Wilkinson

Quercus Books, £20

If ever there was a timely moment to remind a government of its pre-election bluster about reviving the high street, it is this spin-off of a major BBC series that airs this month.

The High Street offers the historical backdrop to the programme in which a number of retailers from baker to butcher to grocer are taken on an historical journey by reliving a century of retailing. Occupying a row of vacant shops in Shepton Mallett, the show charts our changing relationship with our shopkeepers from the 1870s onwards, reminding us how much we have to lose by allowing the slow strangulation of our town centres.

Victorian bakeries were among our most visited shops, which was a mixed blessing for their customers since bread throughout much of the 19th century was adulterated with the chemical alum to make it cheaper. But what defined this bygone era was the feeling of community and support that is all but lost. "It’s a sense of comradeship that is missing today," says the show’s baker Nigel Devlin.

Bakers were quick to adopt new technologies over the following decades, not least by being among the first to use delivery vans in the 1930s to build even closer relationships with customers. But that customer service was soon to be challenged by the rise of the multiples. It is among the most prescient of historical vignettes that the current battle between Tesco and Hovis over price echoes back to Jack Cohen of Tesco’s successful campaign to change the Resale Price Maintenance Law. Until 1964, this legislation had allowed manufacturers to set shop prices, but was blown away under legal challenge, heralding a new era of volume buying and discount retailing. This sounded the death knell for many small shops.

So what of the future? Wilkinson suggests the road to revival begins with highlighting the diversity of local shops, adaptability and flair for retailing and offering the kind of service the Victorians would be proud of. Oh, and some sympathetic planning law changes wouldn’t go amiss if you’re reading, Mr Cameron.