UK High Streets
UK High Streets have reached a ‘tipping point’, concludes a recently published parliamentary inquiry report on UK high streets.
Online sales now account for 20% of all retail sales; business rates are out of step with the rapidly changing retail world; planning policies follow outmoded trends and do not cope well with new concepts – all of these factors are impacting retailers and high streets up and down the country and across all sectors.
As concerns have intensified about the state of our high streets, the Government is slowly starting to take action with urban regeneration set to be a significant area of policy focus over the next few years. We rightly see our high streets as a vital component of the UK’s economic and social fabric. In consequence, local government, property investors and communities should be seeing this as an emerging opportunity.
Ultimately high streets need people if they are to survive and return to being at the heart of the communities they serve. It may be stating the obvious but the need to attract people back into our town centres will have long-term implications for town planners for years to come. Evidence suggests that the towns that have found it harder to adjust to the challenge from online sales are those that have tended to be overly exposed to retail. Taunton is a good example of this narrow focus that has meant that, as bricks-and-mortar shopping has declined, there has been little else to replace footfall into town centres. We hear complaints that local towns are over-run with coffee shops but urban planners are now shifting their efforts towards creating activity-based communities, moving away from the retail-centric model and bringing together a full range of amenities including shops, leisure, hospitals, residential, offices and spaces for art and culture.
Government initiatives are facilitating the move towards town centres being places of social transactions, rather than just a conduit for financial ones. There has been a key strategic message sent from central to local government: “Raise town centre population density”.
My message to local government is: “Replace rigid planning use policy with a drive towards flexibility but, above all, quality.”
We need a better quality, more focussed retail and leisure offer, not more of the same old, same old ….
Our town centres will not return to “how they used to be” and the quicker our local communities embrace change, the quicker we can generate the vibrant town centre that we would like to see. New initiatives need our support and the more we support our town centre with our contactless cards, the more innovation we will attract.
“Provide it and they will come.” In town centres, this maxim speaks as much to customers and to retailers.