The Future of our high streets

At The Haslemere Society’s AGM in November 2019, PROFESSOR DAVID EVANS, a Trustee and former Chairman of Civic Voice, shared his perspectives on the challenges and opportunities for High Streets. This is an abridged version of his address to members of The Haslemere Society.

I am a trustee of Civic Voice, which is the umbrella organisation for civic societies like yours across the country. I said like yours, but all civic societies are very different. They all share the same common theme, which is that they care about the place they live in and want to make it better, but they vary enormously in size, in wealth and in the things that they do.

One of the things that has become a particularly concern in recent years has been the issue of high streets and what is happening in them. People will blame the council, while ordering books from Amazon. I should make it clear that in my view high streets have been changing ever since the industrial revolution. Before that you literally had butchers, bakers, cobblers who plied their trade in a workshop and then sold from the workshop in a high street.

After the industrial revolution you had a change, with people coming in to sell goods that others had produced, and then you had specialist retailers arriving and department stores opening up. Gradually, they expanded and chain stores started taking over high streets. So the fact that high streets are changing is nothing new, but I do think that high streets have changed enormously over the past 40 years and even more over the past 20 years. A lot of people feel a great deal of nostalgia for shops like butchers, and fishmongers.

Retail moves out of town

Then there has been the growth in out-of-town retailing. When I moved to Chester there were shops like Halfords, Currys and an electricity board and gas board shop in the main street, but they all moved out of town to places where the parking was easier. Change in the high street is nothing new and has always gone on, but something more fundamental does seem to be happening now than what has gone before. Those changes were all about expansion, and maybe these now are about decline.

Some big names have gone completely, names like Karen Millen (now online only) Toys R’ Us, House of Fraser is not what it was and Debenhams is in deep trouble. So lots of big name stores are closing and we tend to have a sense of doom and gloom about this, but you do have to remember that other things are opening on our high streets such as coffee bars and gyms. Aldi and Lidl are thriving and expanding; Primark is growing too and has no online presence at all. Then there are nail bars and tattoo parlours,and vape stores, so things are happening and they are changing.

Online retailing arrives

This all arguably started in 1984 when a pensioner from Gateshead made the first ever online purchase, using the former Ceefax service! It has gone on from there and you can argue that it is the big problem for our high streets at the moment. In 2007 2.5% of retailing was online, but by 2019 it was 20%, so a huge proportion of goods not being sold on the high street. Everything suggests that this trend is going to continue. The Office of National Statistics says that this trend will continue, and the proportion of retailing that is online will increase to 40% of total spending.

In 1950 we had nearly 60,000 stores nationwide, now we are down to just over 30,000, so just over half the number in 1950 and by 2022 that figure is forecast to have fallen below 30,000. But there are big regional differences – London and the South East have seen far fewer store closures that the rest of the country, including my patch in the North-West, which is one of the highest.

Retailing has lost over 100,000 jobs in the past few years and the British Retail Consortium suggests that there could well be nearly 1m fewer jobs in retail over the next decade. That is not just store closures, but also automation like self-service tills, that will reduce the need for retail workers. We are also not going to high streets as much as we did. There is a decline in footfall, so if people are not coming past your door, they are not going to come into your shop. That is another area for concern.

Government concern

Government has realised that this is becoming a major issue and earlier in 2019 there was a House of Commons select committee report which looked at what is going to happen in high streets and town centres by 2030. There have been a number of initiatives arising out of this. The Government’s future high street fund potentially has around £1 billion of expenditure in it. Historic England has produced heritage action zone funding, aimed at shopping centres in conservation areas. Heritage lottery funds will also support retailing in areas that have heritage significance.

The future high streets plan has about £1 billion available and 100 areas have been allocated seed-corn funding of around £150,000 to work up a bid that will be in the region of £25-50 million then that funding will be made available, possibly in April/May 2020. There are also 69 areas that have been awarded funding from Historic England for heritage action zones funding, which can be up to £1 million, and Chester is one of those places to be allocated funding. There were over 300 expressions of interest in this high street fund, of which 100 were short-listed.

Portas Pilots

Mary Portas was appointed some years ago to look at ways of transforming high streets and it can be argued that her attempt was pretty unsuccessful. It was good PR but apart from making a television programme, most of the pilot towns don’t seem to have progressed very far. However, there are some honourable exceptions to that. Broadstairs, for instance, was an original “Portas Pilot” and set up what was called a “town team” using volunteers to try to revive the town centre and that pilot project is still running today, despite the fact that the funding has ended.

Barnes, in SouthWest London, also had a Portas Pilot, and instead of spending the money on external consultants they actually decided to have a community workshop to bring local people together and ask them about what they should do. So there was a team made up of businesses, residents, community groups and councillors and they planned a visioning event to create a vision for the town that was led by the residents.

They held a workshop called the “Big Barnes Ponder” in October 2013, which attracted 350 local residents. They grouped their ideas and from that devised six projects and they got 60 volunteers to help implement those projects. Since then, it’s kept going and volunteers have been campaigning and lobbying from the bottom up to try and make their high street a more interesting and refreshing place.

The difference between these two and most of the other Portas Pilots has been that they didn’t concentrate on trying to bring retail back in, but instead to make their town centres an interesting and lively place where people could congregate and felt a sense of belonging and could carry out community activities.

Success in Barnes

That has led to some spectacular successes. Civic Voice held a workshop in Aldershot to look into a similar project there and, in response to Aldershot Civic Society’s Tweet, they got one back from someone in Barnes, telling them that the footfall there since the start of its project had actually doubled. The project in Barnes succeeded in bringing people back there, and if you can bring people back to your town centre, then you have a better hope of keeping retail alive. But you also have to provide people with other reasons to come.

So where do we start if we want to revive high streets? The Institute of Place Management (IPM) at Manchester Metropolitan University came up with a model where they looked at the factors affecting towns, shopping centres and high streets. There are some things – called spatial – which you can’t do anything about, so you are where are, you have no influence over where the town is located, and whether it has a big city nearby. There are also macro factors, political and economic, social and environmental factors which an individual high street cannot do much about.

There are factors about competition – maybe you can do something about those, internet shopping, out-of-town retailers – the high street can have limited influence on those, but actually there are examples where high street retailers are succeeding. But it is the factors in the high street itself that you can influence most. Individual retailers – how the transport system works, whether you can park, how you can encourage regular customers, those are all things that you can do. So the message is basically to focus on the things that you can change, not on the things that you can’t.

Success factors

The IPM came up with 201 factors that influence vitality and viability in the high street. They start with footfall as number one, accessibility, types of retailers, convenience, and they go right the way down to cycling, land contamination, and healthcare, so a huge range of factors. You are a civic society and we are an organisation of civic societies, what can we do about it? Well lots of civic societies are doing things about it. Meetings such as this are taking place all over the country. You are asking questions and thinking about what you can do and what your influence might be.

To give you some examples of things that are happening, Great Yarmouth Preservation Trust has succeeded in buying up properties in the town centre, renovating them and then renting them out to independent retailers at reasonable rents, to try to encourage development of the town centre. Nantwich Civic Society has managed to set up a town centre partnership, including the council and local businesses and the civic society is chairing it, so is in the driving seat.

Bradford Civic Society is involved with the Business Improvement District (BID) – an initiative that has been discussed for Haslemere, where businesses in an area agree to pay an increased business rate in order to fund activities that will boost retail and footfall in the town centre. In Chester, the BID employs local “ambassadors” who are present in the high street to help and guide people and deal with any problems them may have.

The role of civic societies

Local people have a much better chance of understanding their area, particularly when they get to act collectively. The national level is important too, and that’s where Civic Voice comes in, because we are representing you at a national level. Civic societies in general need a national body to press their case at the national level. We are getting somewhere. The House of Commons Select Committee, which I mentioned earlier is very much in line with what Civic Voice is saying, namely that local plans need to be living documents and BIDs need to have community representation on them, not just business representation.

It is no good harking back to the mass retail-led model that has been the norm, town centres and high streets need to become activity-based community-gathering places and retail is just one part of the range of offers and activities, along with green space, leisure, arts and culture, social services and housing all have a place in town centres. My message to you is that anywhere anyone can be part of this change. It is happening in communities across the country where local people are taking the lead in trying to revive their town centres and high streets, and civic societies are an invaluable mechanism in helping to make this happen.