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The right sort of shopping trip could save the nation's soul

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On 8 July 1999, Stephen Byers, Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, announced the government's decision to privatise the Post Office. Tony Blair gave no assurances that he would not sell off the shares. This decision has subsequently removed the Post Office from many locations in our country and cities.

It was yet another example of how financial dogma affects the fabric of people's lives.

Undoubtedly, the Post Office would have had to change in the face of digital competition, but the changes that tend to be made by bureaucrats and accountants are cuts that result in a reduced service, unemployment, hardship and misery. The spirit of Beeching is rife in this country and, by and large, we can see clearly that privatisation and cuts do not work.

The Post Office was the equivalent of an anchor store in a shopping mall and its demise threatens other small businesses around it. Of course, their survival has always been threatened by the arrival of the monster discount store, resulting in the removal of everything within walking distance that is vaguely useful. People have to forever use their cars, resulting in the elderly (when they are too old to drive) becoming dependent on others or having to move to sheltered accommodation. The large-shed appliance suppliers promote technical illiteracy and waste.People opt to buy a new piece of equipment and dump the old, because they cannot find anyone to repair anything.Small workshops find they cannot compete, and not only do they close but the knowledge and skill that went with the trade is lost.

All this has a dire effect on our culture.We are fast becoming a nation of people who spend inordinate amounts of time in our cars, sell things with a smile, and are too exhausted to do anything in the evening but drink copious amounts of lager to forget the tedious day.

We do not make anything and our self-respect is ebbing away. The resultant social programmes to deal with inevitable problems that arise out of bad planning and economic political dogma is not paid for by the private companies, but from taxes. No wonder the quality of public services is diminished.

Shopping is both a necessity and a leisure activity. At its best it provides an opportunity for people to meet and exchange gossip; at its worst it becomes a chore to be completed as quickly as possible. The loss of the opportunity to interact with one another also reduces the level of grass-roots political debate. If there is no talking, attitudes are only developed through the opinion of newspapers, radio and television, which are themselves often devoid of content.

What is required is a new type of department store, which begins to merge shopping with education, production and art. A place that is a focus for things that are unique to the town, and where service becomes an art form.

Perhaps a return to the shop-walker who will greet and assist, and maybe some chairs where the elderly can rest while they are being served. The bar, serviced by a barman who wants to be a barman and is not filling in between nothing and nothing. Workshops as an extension of the local college providing new business opportunities for graduates.

Foodstuffs could be grown on the premises, perhaps a vegetable version of the Eden project. All accompanied by live music and performance. Producers would not be hampered by having to guarantee volume to national or international chains.

Standardisation would be a dirty word.

People would also feel comfortable simply doing nothing. I see the first three of these in Barnsley, Bradford and Bootle.

WA, from the garden table, London

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