Here we try to keep up with the latest publications in this arena:
A new book 'High Street' is the story of a two-year research project looking at 100 high streets. It considers the history of UK high streets, and notes that the current crisis is nothing new; high streets have been in a state of almost perpetual distress since the birth of self service shopping in the 1950s.
The book finds it is far more a crisis of big retail than a failure of places. As for the future, despite (or perhaps because) research from Savills suggests that the UK has up to 40% more retail space than it can support, the book concludes optimistically.
High streets are about far more than retail and are far more resilient than you might believe from the headlines. Here we share three of our book’s nine recommendations for how high streets can evolve and live on.
Everything but the kitchen sink
A huge wave of retail investment in the early 2000s focussed primarily on town centres because planning policy effectively put a stop to out-of-town development. Today both in- and out-of-town retail are having problems, and while there is no great demand to build more out-of-town schemes, it is important, when thinking about where to redistribute that 40% excess retail space, to maintain a tight focus on centres.
Wisest is he who knows he does not know
The book explored the waves of crisis that have buffeted high streets over decades (supermarkets, the internet, Covid), one thing becomes clear; we don’t often see them coming. So to ensure resilience we need to plan with a degree of humility, aware that we don’t know what will come next.
Gone are the days of large single-use shopping malls for example, often built on the rubble of demolished small shops and businesses. Even if these large schemes were once viable, they put all their eggs in one basket. The shopping centre model – based on an anchor department store that generates footfall, allowing it to be built off-pitch – is vulnerable if that store closes.
The urban environments that adapt best to change seem to be made up of small and medium-sized flexible units fronting onto streets and public spaces that are naturally busy because of their connected nature. But what are we to do where mistakes have already been made? Shopping centres can be divided into smaller units, the roof removed to let in light and air, and underused space repurposed for other uses including public facilities, leisure and offices.
Flipping the script
We need a new development model; the book’s case studies point to three possibilities.
The first is for developments in town centres to base viability on residential and office development. Abandoned retail schemes are now often pursued as housing or office schemes, the retail on the ground floor being largely incidental.Sometimes the retail is only there because it was a planning requirement and is likely to target food and drink uses rather than traditional retailers.
The second approach is to find a different business model – as we saw with Bobby’s independent department store in Bournemouth, Kommune in the old Co-op department store in Sheffield, and the market in Altrincham. All have been promoted by developers who know how to make a profit while nurturing small independent businesses. As the developer of Bobby’s says, it is possible now for a small developer to buy good quality retail space for less than it would cost to build. By keeping capital costs low, developing space incrementally, and being flexible and responsive to tenant needs, it’s possible to build a viable business model.
The third approach is public intervention. As the leadership in Barnsley told us, investing public money in town centres is an important regeneration tool. This isn’t about local authorities investing in retail to generate income – that’s a very bad idea at the moment. It is about using public borrowing to buy vacant retail space or even whole shopping centres as a way of bringing them back into use. This may involve a fund to buy up or take on the lease of empty units. Councils can then use them as a tool for regeneration, letting them to local businesses and other activities.
Many councils have taken the opportunity to buy old shopping centres and malls as they come on the market, often at knockdown prices. Wigan council was delighted to buy the Galleries shopping centre in 2018 for less than half what it had sold it for 10 years earlier, and Bradford recently bought the Alhambra Centre. Some councils have gone further, undertaking direct development. The investment will generate sufficient income to cover borrowing costs and may even generate a small surplus, if not one that a developer would regard as a commercial return. However, even if the development makes a small loss, the benefit in terms of jobs created, economic activity and investment in property make it very good value for money.
The high street is dead, long live the high street
The authors went in search of the (latest) crisis on the high street and found instead town centres and high streets in a state of transition. It is a painful transition involving the loss of many anchor retailers, Covid lockdowns and a cost of living crisis. If we can create a town centre economy that is more diverse in terms of the type of retailers, mix of uses and range of activities, then the transition, painful as it is, may end up being positive. It might deliver us from the clone towns of the 2000s and create town centres nearer to those that exist in the popular imagination – community hubs with a range of distinctive retailers and leisure uses with a strong identity and a sense of place. These are all public goods and are too important to be left to the vagaries of the market. High streets need to again be a focus for public policy at national and local level, to allow their diversity to flourish.
This is an amended extract from RIBA Journal July 2023. High Street: How our town centres can bounce back from the retail crisis, by David Rudlin, Vicky Payne and Lucy Montague, is published by RIBA Publishing, 2023