The Great British High Street: dying, but soon to be reborn?

“A bridge of silver wings stretches from the dead ashes of an unforgiving nightmare to the jewelled vision of a life started anew.” Aberjhani

It is nearly a decade since Mary Portas conducted her independent review which shone a spotlight on the crisis affecting the UK High Street after what she described as “many years of erosion, neglect and mismanagement”, left it perhaps “destined to disappear forever”. Despite increasing media attention, the past decade has seen no real improvement, with Planning magazine recently reporting over 3,000 high street job losses in just the first weekend of this new decade.  What would our towns and communities look like without the focal point of a high street? Why does the decline persist?

Increasing consumer preference for on-line shopping, shifting expectations for convenience and accessibility that push in-store shopping out of town, and the high cost of retail combined with increasing pressure on profit margins have left large numbers of high street shops vacant. Maybe it’s time to say goodbye to the high street if we’re not using it and rethink our towns. After all, the problems are not new.

But look at the many reviews, reports, inquiries and consultations, and you will see a growing consensus around a new vision for the future of the high street and what is needed to bring about its rebirth. The themes are:

  • smaller, independent stores, greater diversity;
  • less retail, more experiences;
  • support for innovation and technology;  and
  • a broader mix of town centre uses that will nurture communities.

Look past the depressing statistics illustrating how far the high street has fallen and set aside the nostalgia for the butchers, bakers and candlestick makers of the past, and it’s a truly exciting vision.

Perhaps this is why the Chinese retail giant Alibaba has quietly started expanding their UK property team purportedly eyeing up a move into our high streets, and Amazon recently opened a number of UK high street pop-up stores in what is being dubbed a ‘Clicks and Mortar’ initiative to harmonise the on-line and in-store shopping experiences.

The myriad reports and enquiries often reach the same conclusion: the Planning system needs to provide greater flexibility for changes between planning Use Classes relating to retail, food and drink, and leisure. In the words of Tom Ironside of the British Retail Consortium, “bookshops want to be able to offer coffee at the back of the store and […] a yoga studio upstairs.”  Despite persistent calls for legislative action to relax the Use Classes Order in this area, Government interventions so far have been limited to restrictions on pay day loan shops and betting offices. Hardly enough to trigger the much-vaunted rebirth. No mention was made of Use Classes or high street retail in the Queen’s Speech in December. Whilst today’s Budget announcement gave no indication of further action on this front, the temporary suspension of business rates for companies with a rateable value of less than £51,000 and the announcement of a review of high street business rates later this year may be a welcome boost.  

For too long the Government has put off the systemic changes needed to revitalise and reform our dying Great British High Street. Clearly, this is a problem that must be tackled from many angles. We must hope they will not wait another decade to tackle the problems highlighted by Portas and enact the changes pledged in response to its consultation 10 months ago, including the reform to Planning Use Classes. Without this crucial element, the widely shared vision for an exciting, new kind of high street could be a long way off.

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