A different way to save the high street

Revive local districts by changing them

August 24, 2020
Photo: David Cliff/NurPhoto/PA Images
Photo: David Cliff/NurPhoto/PA Images

When Marks & Spencer announced last week that it would slash 7,000 jobs over the next three months, it was just the latest sign of the reckoning facing Britain’s high streets. From Cornish ports to freezing Highland burghs, shop after shop is shuttering up and bleeding out. And the effects aren’t just economic, but emotional: If a place “doesn’t look cared for, people don’t feel like they’re cared for,” says Lahari Ramuni, a researcher at the Centre for Cities.

We’re all used to hearing about the struggles of independent retailers. Chances are your favourite record store or bookshop slipped away long ago. But the crisis facing retail today is bigger—it concerns the future of bricks and mortar shopping itself, whether at independent shops or big chains. From Woolworths to House of Fraser, the high street behemoths that prop up British towns and cities have been teetering and falling. And when they go, it’s often unclear what should take their place.

Yet some campaigners and policymakers see the potential for an extraordinary rebirth. Britain’s towns and cities stand, they argue, at an inflection point. They can wait and welcome the tumbleweed. Or, they can use the decline of retail to reclaim their spaces for parks, the arts, food and drink, work and life. To do so, policymakers, businesses and local people will have to rethink their most fundamental notions about what our public spaces are for. But first, that means examining how the modern high street was built.

Hooked on retail

In his broad London drawl and easy patter, Bill Grimsey retains something of his beginnings as a 15-year-old butcher’s boy. But his four-decade career, including stints running the DIY chain Wickes and budget supermarket Iceland, saw the still-energetic 68-year-old play an outsize part in the creation of the modern British high street.

Local policymakers and adventurist retailers spent the postwar decades assembling retail-hooked high streets that leaned increasingly heavily on the same familiar chains. They left us a nation less of shopkeepers than of just, well, shops. Grimsey and his contemporaries in big retail “clone[d] every town in the UK with the same brands,” as he put it in a foreword to the most recent of three reports he has funded into the future of the high street. They also oversaw the rise of the out-of-town shopping centre, which was challenging towns long before the appearance of Amazon or Ocado.

While Grimsey says he’s not apologising for his life’s work (he retired in 2012), he’s now evangelical about the need to unpick much of it before too many towns go under. “Do we want to go down that horror movie? Or do we want to bring back enterprise, self-respect?”

Local government policymakers and the private developers they courted were dazzled by the possibilities offered by shopping. In a recent article, the historian Alistair Kefford writes that up to the 1940s, town and city centres often played host to churches, homes, clubs, offices, alongside shops large and small—all of life was there. But with the ascent of the modern planning system, which awarded sweeping new powers to local authorities to steer development, policymakers’ interests quickly coalesced around one part of this offer: retail.

Having lots of shops meant attracting people and their wallets to your town. And, with retail property more valuable—and more heavily taxed—than other types, it was good for budgets, too. That meant an explosion in expensive shopping centres and similar developments, Kefford argues, well beyond what could be justified by the market, and which suited big retailers better than the proverbial butcher, baker or any independent shopkeeper.

And now those big chains are foundering alongside their smaller counterparts, it looks like leaning so heavily on retail has doomed our shop-happy high street to a short life. Grimsey’s 2018 report found that in every year of the previous five, chain retailers had shut more shops than they opened in town centres. Social Market Foundation research published post-Covid-19 says more than 25 per cent of consumers may permanently shift to shopping more online. The question facing towns and cities is: what is a high street for, when people are no longer coming to shop?

A modern agora

Stockton-on-Tees is not unusual in having seen a gradual slide in town centre shopping. “The defining point was when Woolworths closed on Stockton High Street,” says Neil Schneider, who recently stepped down after 11 years as CEO of the borough council. “A huge shop collapsed and [was] left, a bit like a decaying tooth.” The market town also faced long-term erosion from a vast retail park which opened nearby in the early 1990s.

It’s a familiar tale. But Stockton’s response, hailed by Grimsey and others as revolutionary, is what marks it out. Rather than just scrambling for more shops, it decided to think again about what a town centre was for. “The vision,” Schneider told Grimsey’s researchers, “was to develop a big outdoor community centre.”

Partly, that meant heavy investment in culture and leisure in the city centre. The council refurbished a Georgian theatre, for example, and created a community arts centre. At a time when others were jettisoning libraries, Stockton refurbished theirs. Meanwhile, new housing in the city centre should increase its busyness, and the council wants businesses to have their offices there too. Retail is in the mix, not least a reinvigorated market, but as a part of the whole rather than the sole focus. The council has purchased two shopping centres and will consolidate shops in one, while the other is demolished to make way for a riverside park.

This type of approach is summarised by Katie Randall, a managing consultant at Inner Circle Consulting who specialises in town centre and local economic development, as the “modern agora.” “The high street… becomes a space that is of mixed use in the broadest sense,” she says. “It draws people in, but then it keeps people where they have space to dwell and have space to linger.”

While they don’t always put it in such idealistic terms as Randall’s, the consensus among policymakers and experts is that high streets must somehow kick their addiction to retail, encouraging local authorities to mix shops with dining, entertainment, office space and homes. But if that’s so, why isn’t every local authority doing what Stockton did?

Local challenges

As lockdowns eased across the country, social media lit up with selfies and videos detailing happy diners on new outdoor tables, and walkers taking in newly expanded pavements.

It’s a sign of how the pandemic may present an opportunity for those looking to reshape the high street by reinvigorating interest in public space. Meanwhile, data in a report to be published next week by the government’s High Streets Task Force makes a strong case for reimagining town and city centres. What the task force calls “multifunctional” towns suffered a lower drop in footfall between March and June than others.

But the detail will differ from place to place. And there lies a challenge: only local government can make change of this kind, and local government finances are being battered by the pandemic on top of years of austerity-driven decline. Revitalising a high street is slow — Stockton’s Schneider says that the project he and his colleagues started 11 years ago is probably only 20 per cent complete—and the benefits aren’t always purely economic. The Future High Streets Fund, announced in 2018 and expanded in 2019, offers some cash, alongside a separate “Towns Fund.” But plenty of places will be left out of both.

Cathy Parker, co-chair of the Institute of Place Management, says that with some imagination you can actually bring new energy to a high street fairly cheaply, drawing on markets, festivals and the like. But there’s the rub—such ideas rely on crowds. For her, whatever its galvanising value, “Covid really could have a disastrous impact, if we can’t gather in public.”

And some argue we must think even bigger and broader about the purpose of town and city centres. Internationally, movements to put women, children, and other disadvantaged groups at the heart of planning are gaining momentum. In Vienna, for example, the city gathered information on how women use the streets to help inform redevelopment. In Antwerp, they completely reworked streets to turn them into everyday playgrounds for kids.

Such work foregrounds an issue that complicates any major regeneration project—its effect on marginalised groups. In Stockton, for example, Schneider says that, while an estate was demolished for new housing as part of the redevelopment plan, anyone who wanted to could stay living in the town centre. Not everywhere will make the same promise.

But for many working on the issue, revitalising high streets must go hand in hand with economic justice more broadly. “These issues are symptoms of wider economic failure,” the Centre for Cities’ Ramuni says. “They show up on the high street… but only doing action there isn’t going to be the thing that fixes them.” Thinking about your high street means thinking about not only what kind of space your town or city wants, but also what its economic needs are.

The high street, then, is more than a road. It’s a symbol of the sort of place your town is, economically, socially and culturally. Communities across the country must rise to the challenge, or face a street full of shutters.