Is the high street dying or simply changing? 3 key findings from research on 100 high streets with a positive message in the wake of the retail crisis
Everyone has a childhood high street memory don’t they? Mine is being allowed to get Pick and Mix at the Llandudno branch of Woolworths (RIP) on the odd family Saturday shopping trip.
The book High Street is the story of a two-year research project looking at 100 high streets – fascinating, emotive and revealing places that are inextricably woven into our lives and our built environments. 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. Today 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.
This should apply beyond retail to a whole range of uses that can be served by public transport and generate activity to support the wider area. Stockport, for example, wants to relocate Stepping Hill Hospital on its periphery to a new facility on the site of the vacant Debenhams department store, and sell the old site for housing to fund it. The same could be taken to secondary schools, council services, universities, libraries and leisure facilities, as well as new offices, housing and even light industrial. This approach to creating active high streets not only builds resilience to change but is inherently sustainable from a spatial planning perspective.
Wisest is he who knows he does not know
Speaking of resilience, as we 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.
Urban environments that adapt best to change have small and medium-sized flexible units fronting onto naturally busy streets
The book looks at Nottingham, where centre is being redeveloped. In such cases it is sensible to reinstate historical street patterns or use techniques like Space Syntax and footfall modelling to understand what spatial configuration would have been most likely to evolve over time in that location. New space should be designed with floor-to-ceiling heights, fenestration, entrances, floor plates and servicing to suit a range of uses. This would allow the scheme to weather change and remain usable into the future.
Flipping the script
Falling rents and shorter, less certain leases mean the retail development of the last 20 years is no longer viable. The notion of new shopping centres anchored by a department store and catering to select blue-chip retailers is no longer an investable proposition – as many places have found to their cost. More worryingly, the cyclical maintenance and refurbishment of existing retail space looks increasingly unrealistic in all but the strongest town centres. 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. Some schemes, like City Centre South in Coventry, have been criticised for demolishing part of the retail centre for what is essentially a residential development. The scheme’s attempt to develop the ‘Pavilion’ to promote new local independent businesses and artisans has unfortunately turned out not to be viable.
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.
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