The Great British High Street is an institution. High Streets are about so much more than a convenient shopping location. They can be a social hub, bringing people together at the very heart of their community. It also helps form the cultural identity of an area and in turn those who inhabit it. As Winston Churchill said, “we shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us” – from historical constructs to modern design and the art which garnishes our streets. The merits of the high streets are economic as well as social. Flourishing high streets boost local economies, provide local jobs and encourage local investment.
Unfortunately, in recent years we have seen the deterioration of our high streets. Some areas have been hit worse than others, with once bustling town centres now being described as ‘ghost towns’. Empty shops, in shabby settings which can be found in suburban towns across the UK, act as a haunting reminder of this. Sadly, 100,000 jobs have been lost in town centres over the past three years alone (often replaced with more digitally oriented employment). Shops such as British Home Stores, which were once staples of our high streets, are now closed. Undeniably the closure of such shops directly correlates with the rise of digital technology. Internet shopping has put up barriers, making it difficult for physical shops to compete with their internet counterparts, particularly the so called internet giants such as Amazon and eBay.
We now face a generational challenge to revive and re-imagine our high streets. We should aspire to see them flourish to their full potential once again, returning to their historic prominence, with a face-lift for the modern era. Local shops should be looking to grow, not merely to survive. Local people should enjoy utilising the resources their high street offers, from shopping, to solicialising, to seeking information or assistance.
The Chancellor took positive steps to support our high street businesses in the Budget last week. Philip Hammond announced that business rates would be cut by a third for all retailers in England, and a rateable value of £51,000 or less. This move will affect 90% of all independent shops, pubs, restaurants and cafes. This amounts to up to £8,000 for as many as 90% of such retailers. In addition, the budget included some welcomed investment in town centres, with the launch of a £675 million Future High Streets Fund. Further to this investment, the Chancellor set out plans for the introduction of a digital service tax aimed at big technology companies with profitable businesses in the UK, in attempt to level the playing field.
The regeneration of our high streets is about more than just investment. There are also infrastructural considerations. The government recently announced a consultation on a package of planning reform to allow greater flexibility to extend existing buildings upwards and allow a change of use. This is good news and will devolve powers to local authorities, giving them an opportunity to adapt and develop high streets to meet the contemporary needs of their community. On the most basic level, planners should work towards making high streets aesthetically pleasing with character. Fundamentally they should work to make the space they have work and fulfill its potential.
Of course, the preservation and enhancement of our high streets cannot be entirely down to legislators in Whitehall. Whilst it’s support is imperative, a partnership between local government and businesses of all size is necessary.
A creative and ambitious, long term vision for a modern high streets is required which meets the needs and requirements of the people it intend to cater for. This means embracing technology and offering something extra which you can’t get from a phone screen.
High Streets should become about the social experience, with leisure activities and a rich educational and cultural offer. The notion of community hubs is an idea worth developing, in order to help bring people together. Allocated spaces can facilitate a wide range of community uses, such as advice zones for people suffering from mental health difficulties or even social activities targeted at specific groups, such as pensioners, to help to address loneliness and isolation.
Considering the makeup of our high streets, we should also be tackling attitudes towards shopping. We should champion buying from local business and supporting our neighbours, and in turn our local economy. It is also worth noting that shopping locally has a environmental benefit. This is something to think about ahead of Christmas, particularly when considering the short term survival of our high streets.
Preserving and indeed enhancing our high streets is not going to be easy. It will require enterprise. There should be an individualised process for different communities, catered to deliver to the needs and character of a specific area. In the interim, the policies announced in last week’s budget will be advantageous. However in the longer term, vision alongside momentum is required. The modern high street faces a challenge to remain relevant and it must diversify its offer to prevent it being lost forever.