The future of the High Street?

The High street is part of Britain’s heritage and culture (as well as many other places). It was the social and economic hub of most Cities and towns. Today the High street looks rather sad and lacking in vibrancy; a mix of poor to medium quality retailers, charity/ discount stores and a growing number of empty units.

Why is this? Simple; “The biggest displacement of the high street has been the boom out-of-town retail development” said Mary Portas at this weeks BCSC Retail Property conference I attended in Liverpool. As High streets became choked with vehicles and demand from large retailers was for larger, more flexible retail units, the High street started its decline. National brand retailers focused on easy access, big FREE car parks and flexible retail spaces. The Planners response to the rapidly expanding Supermarket brands was “Yes, build out of town!“. Huge mistake. Add the growth of internet commerce (which actually still isn’t as big as people perceive) and in 2012 our High streets are dying fast. The High street decline perhaps doesn’t affect retail per-say – retail exists elsewhere now, but it does have a bigger social and economic impact.

Hyper-consumerism, alongside endless credit/ bank lending and busy lifestyles fueled demand for large one-stop shops – American style. The only thing the Supermarket didn’t provide (initially at least!) was to make these retail environments ‘destinations’, with a sense of identify and place; a social hub – a beating heart to communities.

Mary Portas has nailed the key problems under her commission by the Government. I think the Portas Review succinctly identifies the issues and provides 28 recommendations to try and deal with this serious problem – which goes way beyond retail. One thing Mary said this week is that “New Edge of Town retail development should stop now…Supermarkets should go back INTO towns”.

It’s not just the Supermarkets to blame here. Local Authorities and Planners have a large part to play in this too. But perhaps most of all the Government should take responsibility.

Some recent examples of mixed-use, city-centre retail development has shown very different outcomes. Derby’s retail centre has been completely shifted by Westfield. St. Peters street (the former ‘high street’ of the City) has died. Westfield do operate a  successful destination; the centre has every major retailer, special events, food and drink outlets and a cinema…to name just some. However, it also has doors on every boundary of the fully enclosed building. It works well in isolation, but doesn’t integrate into the City fabric. By contrast Liverpool ONE by Grosvenor offers a very different feel. It doesn’t have doors into the centre, or a roof. It connects into the existing street fabric well and enhances the existing retail offer. Perhaps this is more sustainable for the City as whole.

Back to the problem of our existing high streets and the towns/ cities which are struggling. What is the future of the High Street? The solution needs to attract people, re-create a destination with identity and a sense of place. It should include retail, but not exclusively. Real creativity is needed, new ideas. Portas talks about Children’s play centres, education and learning environments, cultural uses like galleries and museums as well as social eating and drinking venues. Many other things should be considered too. A stronger emphasis needs to be placed on the re-introduction of Independent retailers, not just the national brands. Also, what came from the conference, is that consumers seem to be demanded higher quality retail offerings.

In principle this all seems to make sense. However, notwithstanding the financial investment/ risks involved in new ideas, the mechanism for making this change is a massive challenge. Property prices are a problem, with no doubt some/ most in negative equity and/ or certainly worth a lot less than 5-10 years ago. People/ companies wont want to realise this ‘loss’ in value. Landlords are holding out for a return (?) or higher rents, at the cost of having units/ buildings sat empty. The tax and future cost implications of this will only rise.

The Government, having commissioned the Portas Review, need to act now and address the growing problem of the High Street. It will continue to have serious economic and social implications if we stand still. 

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