What will future high streets offer if it’s not shops? Hosted by Kohn Pedersen Fox, the Society’s ongoing examination of the state of the high street curated by Jane Clossick, Senior Lecturer in Urban Design at London Metropolitan University, continued with ‘Beyond Retail – what else can high streets do?’. Report by Sarah Jarvis of Placeworks.
Our three speakers, Dr Gayle Rogers, Melissa Meyer and Simon Quin, took us on a lightning and enlightening tour of high streets around the country. For a largely London-based audience this brought an insight into what is happening further afield, as well as a fresh look at neighbourhoods nearer to home. It reminded us that while there are commonalities shared by many communities, the importance of place should never be underestimated.
We began in what was likely to be unfamiliar territory for most of the audience, a former mining community in the Welsh valleys. Ynyshir’s high street had already lost its banks, and artist Gayle Rogers was campaigning to save the local museum when another threat emerged. Rhondda Cynon Taff County Borough Council planned to close and sell Ynyshir’s small, single-storey, purpose-built library, along with over a dozen others. As a warm and safe space on the high street it had played an additional role for more vulnerable members of society. The library was closed, but the auction was prevented. This was 2014, a year before Community Asset Transfers were introduced, and Gayle had to take on a complex and expensive lease before she could move the Workers Gallery into the library building.
Gayle’s decision to ensure artistic independence by not seeking public funding has brought many challenges. Yet while some wrote off her endeavour as hopeless she has received lots of support from within and beyond Ynyshir, both in transforming the building into a gallery and from artists wanting to exhibit there. A statement on the website sets out the gallery’s ambition to bring the arts and community together: ‘Artists, designers, musicians and writers use their creativity and art activism to help our community flourish’.
Gayle also believes that a history of reading rooms, bands, choirs and local entrepreneurship, has built a sense of optimism here, helping this community to expect and achieve more out of life. And while isolation could be a threat both for artists as well as for communities such as Ynyshir, the very public, high street location of the gallery helps local people and artists alike to be courageous and inspire each other. She says the shared sense of ownership embodied in the gallery is the best definition of community: ‘side by side we are a community, we are a high street’.
Understanding the social value of high streets is also the focus of High Streets for All, a recent study making recommendations to the Mayor of London. Melissa Meyer, who now works at the GLA, was part of the team from architects We Made That who co-authored the report with LSE. The study identified three places – Burnt Oak, Lower Clapton Road and Lewisham High Street – as representative of experiences across London’s 602 high streets, and the research evidenced the many social functions high streets perform, and the value communities place on them.
This social value includes the importance of high streets as places of flexible employment, offering opportunity for shared or first jobs, and in workspace other than retail; the study found that 45% of people come to high streets for reasons other than retail, including for professional services, that high streets offer informal support such as translation, credit or help filling in forms, and it identified the importance of high streets as places offering a shared point of reference where local people will first ‘identify and respond to processes of change’. The chance for social contact and familiarity, such as people knowing your name, the distinctiveness that comes from small businesses in different ownerships, and the high proportion of sustainable travel choices that local high streets support were also identified as positive characteristics that should be protected and enhanced through policy.
Recognising that high streets offer a social as well as economic asset requires boroughs to take a place-based approach: supporting the diversity and distinctiveness of specific high streets and understanding local circumstances to avoid losing the variety of businesses and spaces. One of the greatest threats to this immense range of social value is that 70% of London’s high streets fall outside the planning designation of town centres and the protection this might give them. The report recommends this lack of protection be addressed, and this is now being taken up through the New London Plan.
Finally, co-chair of the Institute of Place Management at Manchester Metropolitan University Simon Quin surveyed the national picture. Here retail failure across high streets has happened despite policy effort, when ‘every few years government takes note and does something’. First it was town centre management, then the sequential test, BIDs, and reviews by Portas and Grimsey 1 and 2. The Future High Street Forum is now headed by a minister for the High Street. Headline figures predict a 23.6% drop in store numbers from 2012-2022, but the rate over the past decade has been three times as high as over the 50 years before that. Nor is the rate uniform across the country.
As co-author of two major research studies on changing high streets, High Street 2020 and Bringing Big Data to Small Users, Simon has witnessed the huge variation across the country at firsthand. In general, London has seen fewer stores close, whereas some towns have been hit by waves of decentralisation, such as Dudley, which lost 78% of footfall when Merry Hill first opened. The impact of online retail, allowing us to shop 24/7 if we want to, has also forced traditional retail centres to rethink their offer. What can high streets offer that the Internet cannot? Norwich has become the first ‘sharing city’, where people come into town to share or borrow things; pop ups can bring variety and encourage return visits; experiential retail means clothes shops also offer coffee or a beer while browsing; health, fitness, leisure, entertainment and culture all feature in creating the vital and viable centres of the future.
Sometimes, however, there seems to be no evidence for the features some high streets and town centres think they need, such as car parking. A panel of 22 experts assessed the factors that are actually useful against how much local control places over these factors, and was able to prioritise those that make a difference, such as recreational space as an important part of the experience. Above all, successful town centres need local knowledge and leadership: the report recommends a four-part approach of repositioning, reinventing, rebranding and restructuring. Certainly the World Economic Forum is positive: by 2026 it believes the high street will have transformed into a rich, engaging and specialised experience, ‘full of discovery and excitement’.
Following the presentations, questions and discussion with the audience explored issues including the impact of lost European funding for high streets such as Dudley, whether the biggest threat is from permitted development, and the inability of use classes to reflect what is happening as activities merge. Questioners asked if more could be done through business rates, and whether there was any virtue in consolidating high streets seen as straggling and characterised by the ‘broken teeth’ of empty units.
Optimism came too with more examples of place-based approaches paying dividends – such as the high quality revitalization of Altrincham’s market, and the effective consultation being carried out in Shrewsbury for a new town plan. It seems that engaging local communities in their high streets is one thing successful places across the country have in common.