Changing the High Streets Story

The announcement of the Future High Streets Fund in December, and the subsequent development of local authority proposals, follows a slow decade of grim reports of retailer performance and declining consumer confidence.

The fund follows the re-emergence of a discussion which has a fundamental impact on places and local economies and provides an opportunity to reflect upon the success and mistakes of the past.  It also hints at the fact that the penny may have dropped with government and the future of the high street may not just be retail.

The high street is (and has always been) the purest and most visible articulation of the economy of any given locality. It is the focus for civic activity and endeavour; it demonstrates local demand; represents local society and community; and amplifies the local conversation about a place. For these reasons, high streets are one of the most interesting and important spaces in which we work.

Media coverage of high streets however, continues to be derivative and lazy in both its language and commentary. This often suggests that it is high streets themselves that are failing, when, they are merely providing the space in which local and national social and economic challenges become visible.

At Hatch Regeneris, we have spent the last decade working on high street and town centre projects. We have seen the way that they are used and how they adapt to change; we have identified where and how they deliver value; and we have observed how they have adapted previously and are adapting now.

Reflecting upon this, we sat down with our regular collaborators We Made That and PRD to consider what we have observed and what we think our clients need to be doing.

Debunking some myths…

Analysis of the high street can sometimes be led by the narrative, rather than the facts. This promotes generic analysis and the promotion of myths which has arguable caused previous policies to fail. Some of these common ‘myths’ are:

The ‘death’ of retail: Maybe not a myth, but not the be-all-and-end-all for high streets. The demise of some famous high street names is well documented, but recent research by We Made That and LSE has shown that somewhere between 45-66% of visits to high streets are not actually for shopping. To think that high streets are just about shops is missing most of the point of them in the present day, and even more so when we are looking to the future.

Looking at the aggregated position in London (using ‘best fit’ data areas for high streets) specifically, we see that employment in town centres has actually grown more rapidly than the city as a whole. Interestingly, this applies as much in outer London centres as central high streets.

Tumble-weed town centres: Vacancy isn’t a universal problem. Clearly, it is in some places, but certainly not everywhere. As such, the blunt logic that we need to fill ‘voids’ (with housing amongst other things) just doesn’t stack up in many places and could potentially freeze out other more active and productive uses.

In London, our analysis suggests that only one in ten businesses within our aggregate high street and town centre area are retail companies. High streets and town centres actually appear to be more important as a location for knowledge industries than retail.

*NB – Resilient Sectors are those identified by Nesta (Creative vs Robots, 2015) as being more resilient to technological change. We have defined resilient businesses as a company with a risk of ‘computerisation’ of less than 30%.

Brands and multiples as the ultimate goal: The assumption that you need to bring in external investment in the form of a certain shop or brand to make a town centre a success needs to be rethought. Whilst this can make sense in attracting visitors, in the simplest economic terms, this approach actively promotes leakage and money leaving the local economy. What’s more, it also means that decisions which impact upon specific places are often made far away from the location in question.

Low quantity/quality economy: In London, there are more jobs on and within 200m of high streets than in the whole of the city’s Central Activities Zone; what’s more, this is growing. High streets also support jobs across a range of qualification levels and skillsets. Let’s not forget that for many people they are a stepping stone into employment – first time jobs for young people, accessible jobs for recent immigrants, or part time jobs and second careers for those who have ‘retired’.

Nothing of value: Even in struggling high streets, we have found that a significant proportion of businesses offer some form of social support – form filling, translation, just knowing the name of a lonely older person. This is amazing and vital! If we judge everything by aesthetics we’re missing a whole host of valuable things.

Building a response…

To develop a strong response, we need to move away from the old language, still used by government, of needing to save the high street. This means challenging the old way of doing things and recognising that high streets themselves are diverse, democratic places, where people can come together meet, engage and (on occasion) transact.

The fact is, if high streets didn’t exist, you would probably invent them. They are normally a collection of buildings, in the best-connected location in a place, with an element of public space and strong civic amenity. They are not always clean, but hopefully they are busy, with the fundamental assets normally there.

Partners need to use their assets (physical, human and institutional) better. The idea that renaissance will be achieved through increased external investment in well-known multiples is at best debatable, whilst the assumption that the high street’s future is driven by increased consumer spending is perverse at a time of rising personal debt and decreasing relative incomes.

The next generation of public-sector high-street interventions needs to be more holistic. It must recognise the importance of local identity, support local communities and businesses and (perhaps most importantly) acknowledge the vast array of different ways that people use and value any given high street.

We have identified five principles to support the public sector response to the evolution of high streets and town centres:

  1. Recognise the specific challenges for individual high streets. Don’t assume that the national narrative is true for all places. Local authorities need to seek specific responses that are place-based and work across departmental divides. Residential as a replacement for retail can be seen as a panacea, but it would be wrong to move straight to this ‘solution’ without allowing flexibility in planning terms for change between a range of uses.
  2. Understand the value of ownership. Local Authorities can use their influence as landlords to curate and cultivate innovative or socially-oriented uses on the high street. They can take a long-term view, adopting more progressive lease terms to support uses that bring wider benefits to an area. This does mean accepting that the return from high street investment may not deliver a cash payment or even an assumed uplift in value or productivity but could deliver a social and/or environmental return which is much more impactful and locally based.
  3. Understand people and the social function of high streets. Cherish and build upon local character. Communities feel very strongly about their high streets – at their best, they are the most democratic places in any local area. Even the most informal social interactions on high streets are important, but more can be done to curate and animate places. Moreover, collaborative decision-making is crucial to the design of healthy high streets.
  4. Be agile and accept change. Even the most commercially successful places should retain some flexible spaces in perpetuity. Allowing constant prototyping and development of new ideas will be crucial to ensure that town centres and high streets are able to evolve with changing demands and trends.
  5. Use and share evidence and insight. Compared to a decade ago, the evidence available to us is pretty mind boggling. Postcode data for business location, mobile data for movement, social media data for sentiment, real time credit and debit card information that provides real time information on transactions. This data is becoming more and more accessible and can provide vital, usable insights on change. Qualitative evidence should not be overlooked too – this often provides the richest insight and the kernel of the idea that can bring about real change.

It is impossible for us to say exactly what will work for every high street. Everything we observe however, suggests that successful places will be those that adopt new ways of working. These will adopt a culture around making, working, learning and caring rather than yields, spend and external investment.

Clearly, financial performance will be a factor in delivering change, but this needs to be (at the very least) balanced with something that is more human and more local, delivering an impact broader than has traditionally been the case.

Most importantly, our collective thinking needs to be optimistic, celebrating what the high street could be and not what it has been before.

For more information please contact Chris Paddock, Director, Urban Solutions.


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