What Future for Our High Streets?

May 23, 2019 - Michele

We’ve been clearing out the Blue Sail blog attic and among the old posts were two that I wrote back in 2013 about distinctive shopping streets. The posts drew on examples where success was achieved by independent shopkeepers collaborating and cross-selling, trading on and offline, and by streets that provide a special place to experience brands and offers. Streets that appeal to visitors.

Frome – packed with independent shops and street stalls


2013 was the era of the Portas Pilots, a scheme created to showcase innovative ways of getting people back into local shops. In the longer term the scheme was slated as unsuccessful, though others argued it was hijacked by political PR.  Certainly its funding was very limited. Whatever the real situation, the scheme highlights that struggling retail is not a new thing. Currently, the crisis of the high street is a much debated topic. The now not-so new mantra is that shops of the future will be showrooms rather than places of purchase, offering customers experiences. Perhaps more significantly people are now thinking what the role of town centres should be, if not for shopping. What is a market town without a market? And before shopping why did people come into the town centre, what did they do and what can we learn from that?

At the end of 2018, the government published The High Street Report which takes a look at the problem and the future. This report summarises the findings and recommendations of an independent high streets expert panel. The market challenges that high streets face are well known: the rapid growth of online shopping and the convenience of out-of-town shopping. The report also identifies the end of cycle of some retail formats as a contributory factor. Think department stores. The report advocates a future that returns to a more mixed use for town centres overall including dining, culture, medical services, leisure and sport. Most of those uses have a lot to do with tourism. Visitors have a role to play in rebuilding and sustaining the future of the high street and town centres more widely, particularly in heritage and market towns that have a narrower economic base, and often have fewer people to support a range of uses. The impact of visitor spend can be a game changer.

However, many of the major obstacles for our high streets are not market forces but about planning issues, a shortage of specialists in space design and a “lack of inspirational and forward-looking leadership”. I would add to the expert panel’s list, the ownership of the buildings. Many shops, (and the frequently under-utilized spaces above them) are owned by pension funds and large estates for whom rental values are more important than who occupies the shop.  The result is often a mix of uses that falls short of what local planners want, a higher turnover of occupants and vacant premises. The report is clear, individualisation is the way forward – understanding your place, its collective needs and its potential. And so the £675 million Future High Street Fund was born in December last year.

But while there has been an excessive growth in retail footprint over the last decade, and we are now over-shopped, not all high streets are failing. In May 2017, the Retail Gazette talks about national brands providing flagship stores in prime areas, then picking up the rest of their geography online. The article also talks about brands that choose to locate in places where they could catch people “in a different mindset, perhaps in a mood to purchase affordable treats”, which brings us back to visitors. Towns that attract visitors are more likely to appeal to these brands. Visitors may influence the type of shops in a high street in subtle ways. That may, or may not, be a good thing.

If all high streets are not failing, where is succeeding and why? This was a question asked and researched by the Centre for Cities in February this year. The answers make interesting reading. Shopping is related not only to the resident population but also to the working population. The report demonstrated more diverse and thriving retail in cities with high proportions of higher skilled employees working in sectors like communications, marketing, digital and technology, consulting and financial services. These sectors bring in a new daily population looking for vibrant centres in which to network and relax, creating demand for shops, cafés, fitness clubs, pubs and places to eat. They also create demand for new living accommodation in the city centre. The higher the proportion of floorspace given over to offices in these added-value sectors, the healthier the state of the city centre. The implication being that improving the vibrancy of city centres is about the quantity and type of offices and employment. The relationship between tourism and the success of larger city centres is complex and nuanced. But I struggle to think of a successful destination city that doesn’t have a good shopping offer and a vibrant café culture.

So how big is the crisis for the future of town centres if they lose much of their retail? Probably great if the place doesn’t tackle the issue in an integrated and strategic way, which means not assuming the solution is more cafés or filling vacant shops with whoever will take them. And not thinking that good public realm and a festival will sort it. It won’t, though both of those things are good to do.

And tourism? It may be part of the answer. Every place is different, and in some towns, visitors will sit at the heart of the solution. In others, a weakened distinctive shopping offer and a run down town centre will undoubtedly impact on the appeal of the town and depress visitor spend. And we know from market research that creative places with integrity that value their local distinctiveness, attract discerning higher spending visitors. Destination organisations need to be part of the discussions on the future of the high streets and town centres in their patch to ensure the opportunities and needs of tourism are properly considered.

My positive takeaways from looking again at shopping streets is that high street cloning is over and people coming together to share experiences in the town centre is back in fashion. Long live that.

Barnsley – where a new indoor market will create a vibrant shopping centre

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