It Might Be Time To Lay The Great British High Street Down

High Street, Ringwood, Hampshire, circa 1959 by alwyn_ladell on Flickr
High Street, Ringwood, Hampshire Showing the Regal Cinema. Photochrom Co. Ltd., Tunbridge Wells. Sixpence (by Air Mail to France); postmarked 1959. The Regal Cinema building on the right is now boarded up and at risk.

 Once upon a time there was romantic notion. Although romantic, it had its roots in reality, the reality of the times it was conceived in.

And so it went on to go beyond being just a notion. It thrived, and that was a good thing, but then the notion assumed even greater romanticism, for the very reason that it had thrived. And that wasn’t such a good thing. But no one saw that yet, because although the notion had started to grey around the temples, real decline had yet to show.

Then one day, times changed. People changed, the way they lived and behaved started to change, faster than any long-lived notions can change. And the romantic notion started to flounder. It would have died a death sooner, but for the holders and protectors of romantic notions who would not let it go – having seen in thrive once, they assumed it would live endlessly, that it could be revived to its youth.

And so they tried to make the notion live longer, stretched it, which made it age faster. And then one day, the notion died, leaving the believers bereft – and a bit out of pocket, because they had been so focused in trying to save something whose time had passed, they neglected to look into the present, and the future, and build an alternative.

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The recent Mary Portas review largely reiterated the problems of the British high street but was highly inadequate in finding real and rooted solutions for the problems. At the same time, there are campaigners stepping up the buy-local slogan, suggesting that if we fill our high streets with indigenous sellers of homemade products, all will be solved and everyone will live happily ever after.

Yet other players are jumping in on the bandwagon selling a one-stop solution – a redesign, re-engineer, refit solution for high streets in terminal decline – a brave statement akin to bringing back the dead from the grave.

In my opinion, they couldn’t be further from reality.

Yes, local sellers and local markets are part of the solution, but far from being the saviours of the high street.

Yes, a refit solution might work in some high streets, especially those that are tending towards decline but haven’t yet gone into derelict status yet; but these are far from being the solution for most of them.

The existing high street must find other uses for it to be commercially viable, while retail finds its place in well-designed shopping centres that are captive destinations – that allow people the retail choice they want, in the comfortable environment they demand, alongside ancillary uses that will encourage them to come to the shopping centre and stay there longer – and therefore spend more. The success of Westfield in West London is not a fluke – it is a result of  locating luxury brands, a wide range of chains as well as local, indigenous retailers all under one roof (albeit carefully selected and zoned within the development – the principles of economies of agglomeration still apply to this type of development). All this, in an environment where people can be comfortable, engage in other pursuits and be entertained for hours, is what has made Westfield such a dramatic success – not only for the developers and retailers, but also for the consumer, the most important link in the chain (but often ignored by the sloganeers).

I’m not suggesting that UK should be colonised by Westfields and its kin. I’m suggesting that the answer lies in a holistic, forward-looking and open-minded assessment of high streets on a case by base basis.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution here.

On one hand, we need to be open to the possibility of finding completely different uses for some of our high streets that are already dead or derelict or fast approaching terminal decline.

On the other hand, if shopping centres are created, they need to look well beyond retail to be successful, and more importantly, sustainable.

Yet another model is that of a combination of downsizing the high street to core retail and recreating parts of it with non-retail uses that can help attract people back to the area.

In my work, I have come across several examples in other geographies that demonstrate these models successfully. Fundamentally, Britain needs to lose its attachment to that romantic notion of the Great British High Street. Its time is gone and it’s time for new notions, firmly rooted in the new reality, to take its place.

And that perhaps, could deliver another “happily ever after” – for the next few decades of retail in Britain.

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