Last month’s figures show that the real High Street is losing the battle with the virtual ‘Marketplace’ – retail sales and occupancy rates were down compared with the same period last year while the ratio of internet sales as a percentage of total retail sales continues to rise (House of Commons Economic Indicators, Sept. 2019).
Of course, this is no surprise – we are getting used to hearing about declining sales on the High Street. However, the gradual break-down of our town and city centres has far reaching implications beyond shopping; less footfall and active frontages with passive surveillance leads to an increase in antisocial behaviour and a reduced sense of security. It is the beginning of a downward spiral that culminates in the ‘doughnut’ effect – a term that was used to describe the empty downtown of Detroit when the city declared bankruptcy in 2013.
Earlier this year, a select committee of MPs conducted a six month review into the general state of High Streets and town centres in the UK (High streets and town centres in 2030, Feb. 2019). Having considered multiple factors from shopping trends and business rates to access and appearance, it concluded;
- Without urgent action, ‘some high streets and town centres will disappear altogether’.
- To survive, they need to ‘adapt, transform and find a new focus’.
- Achieving this will require ‘large-scale structural change’.
Although this might seems like a desperate cause, if the committee’s assertions are unpicked, there are still reasons to be optimistic – even enthusiastic.
It is worth keeping in mind that overall, we are still shopping; while the value of retail sales are down compared with the previous three months, the quantity (volume) of retail sales increased by 0.6% and the volume of sales in non-food stores was up by 1.9% on last year (HoC, Sept. 19). Significantly though, more and more of these transactions are happening online.
Fortunately, shopping is not just a transactional activity. It is also an enjoyable social experience that involves recreation, interaction and a sense of being part of a wider community. It is through these aspects that the committee sees the chance to reposition and revitalise the High Street;
- ‘Activity-based community gathering places where retail is a smaller part of a wider range of uses and activities’.
- ‘Green space, leisure, arts and culture and health and social care services combine with housing to create a space based on social and community interactions’.
Essentially, the ‘structural change’ that is required involves a shift from the conventional retail model to something that is more people, place and experience centric. The Food Market in Altrincham and The Teenage Market in Bolton are good examples of attractions that have increased footfall in the wider area akin to the impact of the traditional anchor store. In other instances, passive measures such as public realm improvements, wayfinding, new street furniture, folk and heritage walks and better integration of urban and landscape spaces might be considered to improve access and activity.
Diversifying the traditional town centre offering presents the opportunity to introduce a more vibrant mix of complimentary activities that would maintain active frontages and employment generating activities close to transport links. It is assumed the precise mix and allowance will vary depending on the specifics of place and context. For instance, The Daily Business reports a shortage of quality office space in Glasgow and Edinburgh particularly for SMEs and creative industries, in the north of England, Network Space have observed a critical shortage in the availability of small industrial space while property agents Lambert Smith Hampton note a deficit in the availability of studio and production space across the UK. Coupled to this, we are acutely aware of pressures in the residential sector to deliver new homes close to activity hubs and the increasing demand for different typologies to support cohabiting, communal and assisted living.
Returning to retail, it is also worth noting that according to Equity Insider, at least 50% of online sales at major High Street chains are collected in-store, in particular, 75% of sales at Boots and 71% at Marks & Spencer. So, even after making an online purchase, the majority of customers still choose to visit their nearest store.
As shelves begin to fill with Christmas Cards, retailers will be hoping for a better festive period than last year, which was the lowest performing since 2008 (British Retail Consortium). However, as the world becomes more ‘virtual’ there remains a pull towards real experiences that if harnessed can breathe new life into our urban centres and support a more robust and sustainable model for the future.
What is clear is that unless this is realised by all stakeholders, there is a real concern that our High Streets and town centres will soon become relics of a bygone age.
By David Edwards, writing for Planning and Building Control Today, Winter edition, 2019