WI says: ‘end the decline of our high streets’.

I spoke at the Women’s Institute AGM on Saturday, a daunting experience: an audience of some 4,000 women who seemed actually to be paying attention to the speakers. 


I was supporting the following motion:


The National Federation of Women’s Institutes notes the continuing decline of our high streets and the damaging effect this has on local communities.  We call on every member of the WI to support their local shops and make the high street their destination of choice for goods and services.  We call on decision-makers to work collectively, at all levels, to help bring an end to the decline of our high streets and to ensure that high streets flourish and provide a focal point for local communities.


You might think this would be a shoo-in.  Even the opponent of the motion, William McKee from Accessible Retail (that should be ‘accessible-if-you-have-a-car retail’) didn’t really oppose it.  As he said, no one wants high streets to decline; we all want them to flourish, albeit in different ways. 


But then the debate started.  The motion was deconstructed as if we were in a critical theory class thirty years ago. The drift was ok, but this, that, or the other clause or sentence was muddily worded, contradictory or vacuous.  One speaker opposed it because no one could honestly aspire to make her town centre a ‘destination of choice’: it (High Wycombe, since you ask) was beyond saving and should be bombed to oblivion.


No one referred to my speech, but I recalled proposing a motion at Oklahoma State University about 13 years ago, opposing capital punishment.  Before the speeches, a vote was taken and I had three dangerous liberals on my side.  By the end of the debate, my support had evaporated.  I left the conference centre in Cardiff feeling sure I had (to use a rather male metaphor) missed an open goal. 


In the event, 87% of delegates supported the resolution.  Clearly my powerful address made the difference, but the vote may also have been helped by good old mandating, and by Griff Rhys Jones’s barnstorming speech immediately before the debate.  Among the highlights was his take on the acronym, NIMBY: ‘It’s not a “yard,” that’s an Americanism.  It’s a garden, and if you don’t look after your garden, who do you expect to do it for you?’  He also made the rather obvious, but frequently forgotten point that ‘no two places are the same’. 


However flawed the wording of the resolution, its intent is clear: our high streets and town centres are in trouble and the WI, through its members’ shopping choices and political pressure, wants to come to their aid.


That is a cheering thought.   


3 Responses to “WI says: ‘end the decline of our high streets’.”

  1. 1 Arthur Franks June 3, 2013 at 8:28 am

    A wonderful motion to support, but how many will still disappear to the local supermarket at the first sign of a grocery shop. We are fortunate enough to be able ALL our meat, vegetables bakery and dairy products in small local, independent shops where you are served and treated as an individual and there is also the social side to the whole aspect as well. Yes it means moving to diferent shops but that is part of the experience.

  2. 2 Rachael Hodgetts June 3, 2013 at 10:12 am

    Don’t think for one moment that your great speech did not contribute to the outcome. It was interesting that the WI Trustee who proposed the motion elaborated on the terminology, encouraging members to support local shops, be that in a high street, town centre or village shop, over shopping centres, supermarkets and online shopping . And what about farm shops, currently the key destination if one wishes to source a selection of local food. And thank you for putting forward the notion of food webs and spend on local goods staying in the local economy.
    So the WI voted convincingly in favour of the motion, so look out for the WI ladies- coming soon to a high street near you!

  3. 3 Tessa Milols June 3, 2013 at 6:58 pm

    I was at that conference and just wanted to say how much I enjoyed your talk.We are being threatened with plans to build a Sainsbury’s nearby and I was feeling powerless to even try to put any objection to it as it feels like a ‘fait accomplis’.You suggested a toolkit sounds like it may have some helpful advice for making our concerns known to the relevant authorities.

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