The High Street

High streets played a central role in our communities, were the cornerstone of British retail and played a significant part in the consumer economy for decades. They weathered economic upheaval and wars. However, the Covid-19 pandemic accelerated a number of pre-existing trends and caused a watershed moment. By virtue of their locations, our high streets still have a central role to play in our communities as well as the built environment of our urban environments. However, they must embrace change – significant, structural change – to secure their futures.

The traditional high street: heavily occupied by goods retailers.  Some wider uses, including leisure and heath and care, present but largely reliant on consumers drawn in by the retail.

Almost overnight, with all non-essential retail and leisure closed and consumers largely confined to their homes by government restrictions, our high streets became empty, deserted places.

As lockdowns lifted our high streets, and lives, reopened.  The UK Retail Sales Index, having recovered by mid-2021 is evidence of resilience.  However, whether considered to be a revolution or an evolution, there is no denying that our high streets look very different now to how they looked a few years ago.

Food retailing remains strong and many of the supermarket giants have grown their convenience store offerings on the high street to supplement existing out of town portfolios.  Independent and speciality food retailers have exploited the benefits of being small and agile to flourish in local locations.

Many former retail units are being repurposed for non-retail uses: health, care and wellbeing, community groups, leisure (the “fun economy”) and last mile logistics.

An anti-dote to online retailing, experiential retail, which prioritises customer experience and boosts customer engagement rather than emphasising the sales transaction, has bucked the general retail trend.

Placemaking is an important consideration in the revitalisation and re-energising of our towns and cities, with high streets at their centre.  Not just for new developments, a focus on community, connectivity and culture is driving our urban environments to reinvent themselves and individualisation is key – one size does not fit all.

The onslaught of CVAs seems to have passed but, despite reviews and calls for change, their power and disruptive influence on the landlord and tenant relationship remains available, in the wings.

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