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Member blog: The changing High Street: haven’t we been here before, and what comes next?


Since the 2008 credit crash the one consistent message around the much discussed problems with the ‘High Street’ has been that shops are closing. This message is reiterated each time another high-profile retailer announces store closures, applies for a CVA or insolvency practitioners take over. Over the past 12 years there has hardly been a week when one retailer or another has not outlined plans to ‘rationalise’ their estates and/or review new openings.

The confirmation by HM Government earlier this month that yet another significant sum of taxpayers’ money is to be invested in quite a few town centres indicates that there is official alarm relating to the current state of the traditional High Street. Yet, have we not been here before? Have we not seen government initiatives with great intentions and loud promises to invest, promoted by high-profile personalities, that finally fail to achieve the desired results?

It is astonishing to me that the overall debate about the High Street/town centre has become enveloped within a narrowly focussed range of activities: retailing. It also does not articulate the underlying causes of problems being discussed. That is a mistake in my opinion.

To read the recent media reports about the new funding scheme you might be forgiven if you believed that the whole thrust of the High Street debate is less about place and almost exclusively about retailing. Perhaps the reflective learning, which one might hope has taken place, underpinning this scheme is based on the experiences of too recent a timeframe.

I am certainly not the first to acknowledge that the amount of shop floor sales space in the UK is above that which is needed or viable. I am not the first to sense that the growth of ‘out of town’ or ‘edge of town’ retail parks, regional shopping malls and outlet parks is a major factor for the creation of what are euphemistically described as voids in those town centres. These more so, I will add, than the impact of online shopping. 

The official planning policies of ‘Town Centre First’ were created as part of the National Policy Planning Framework and often after costly local consultations adopted by planning authorities. Yet, time after time, these were circumvented by spurious and inconsistent claims relating to the business plans of the would-be tenants of new centres rather than considering the impact on the town centres or the needs of the local community.

It is quite clear that there is a serious disparity between the aspirations of retail chains and the intentions of the effects of the Town Centre First policies. It is a shame, but it is probably also past the point where the effects might be reversed. 

Take the recent decision by Exeter City Council to grant permission for the Moor Exchange retail park, despite it having previously been twice rejected. It will create a lot more retail space, which in a saturated marketplace will mean further pressure being placed on the more established sites in Exeter who will be competing for the same tenants. As a potential tenant, if offered a bright new purpose-built store with free parking and a marketing campaign to attract customers to the new space, why would I not consider it?

So where does that leave the traditional High Street? In some ways it might be the best thing for them that retail chains are vacating. It will need a period of re-education for all parties, not least the public, but the message needs to be loud. Town centres are not primarily retail spaces. That was never the purpose of town centres. It happens that when town centres were fully acting as hubs for the community that people gathered. Wherever people gather then there is an opportunity for retailers.

If we are fully embracing that the idea of traditional town centres return to the purposes for which they evolved, then it is imperative that we quickly identify what the modern equivalents of those purposes are – and that may vary from town to town. It will certainly include retailing. Retail will not fully vacate our towns, especially not the SME and specialist businesses whose role fits in with the community hub role of the town centre itself.

Local authorities need to be mindful of their role and avoid moving their own offices away to less accessible locations. Where new centres such as Moor Exchange are opened, then is the perfect time for a fundamental review of the existing retail business rate valuations – reducing those from the traditional areas commensurate with the gain to the revenue stream of the new shops. In concert with landlords, encouraging local organisations to occupy spaces recently vacated by retailers – colleges, crèches, Citizens Advice Bureaus, youth clubs, business start-ups and so on – the list is endless. 

With all the new funding becoming available, most of things are possible, along with the extensive local market research that must be carried out preparatory to any local plan. It is essential that the funding is not simply lost on hard landscaping and prettying up the area. 

One of the pilot towns is Stockton-on-Tees. This is a town that spent a great deal on hard landscaping in the town centre – so the fact it is still a town in need of support reinforces the argument that landscaping is not in itself a solution. The community’s needs must remain the overarching factor for leading change.

John Orchard is a Member of the Institute of Economic Development, and Managing Director of Welbeck Retail Management Ltd