A New Era on the High Street?

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This week the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, set out a number of measures to rejuvenate the High Street as part of the 2018 Budget, yielding to the crescendo of cries for action to be taken to ‘Save the High Street’. But, is it too little too late to stem the tide of change?

Retailing has always been subject to changes and fluctuations. The fickle nature of consumer demand and tight margins in the commercial retail sector have driven successive waves of change on the High Street and transformed where and how we shop. Creating resilience on our High Street is as much an issue now as it was over 30 years ago when decentralisation saw food, bulky goods and DIY/hardware move out-of-town (Schiller, 1986). Back then, policymakers were concerned about whether these new ‘consumer friendly’ out-of-town centres and retail parks were initiating a downward spiral of blight, especially in many smaller town centres. Ever since, local authorities have struggled to adopt effective measures to keep many traditional retail streets afloat. More recently, the effects of the latest shopping innovations, such as mobile apps that allow shoppers to ‘try on’ clothing virtually, or view furniture in their home, and pickup locations such as Amazon Lockers, are starting to be felt in our city centres. Some foresaw the potential of online retailing to alter our shopping habits but it’s taken some years to have a significant impact. The combination of greater competition, differential cost structures and how consumers now use our town and city centres are having unprecedented effects on the physical retail landscape. One of the biggest challenges has been a surge in empty shop units. Few centres – big and small – have been insulated from the rise in store closures.

Our urban centres need to adapt. It is no secret that diversifying the use of land and buildings in our town and city centres will help develop that resilience. Mary Portas has been proclaiming this message for years and landowners, developers and occupiers have an important role to play by being more creative and flexible in how shops are used. It can no longer be taken for granted that the High Street is THE place to shop, or that centres at the top of the retailing hierarchy (such as Glasgow, Manchester or Bristol with their extensive catchments) are a safe bet for retailers and landlords. Hard decisions may be required if redevelopment or even demolition is necessary to reduce the growing excess of redundant retailing space. But the future of the High Street is not necessarily lost. For example, some cities are seeing the emergence of the ‘new’ High Street where ‘experience-seeking’ consumers can find a greater mix of leisure and cultural activities, personal services and social spaces alongside traditional shops.

REPAIR (Real Estate, Place Adaptation and Innovation within an integrated Retailing system) is a recently launched ESRC-funded research project. Researchers in this multi-stream research project, running over three years, are studying these spatial changes in five case study retail centres: Glasgow, Edinburgh, Liverpool, Hull and Nottingham. The goal of the project is to analyse the ways that centres are adapting to changes in the retailing market. Just this week BBC reporters highlighted the rise in the number of fast food outlets on the High Street, evidence of the trend to convert space to leisure use, but within a narrow sector. This study will examine how landlords, buildings and the urban realm are adapting to accommodate new users, event-based retailing and other temporary activities; explore the synergies between existing and creative land uses, such as shared spaces, pop-up galleries and crowd-drawing cultural activities that are increasingly situated alongside retailing; and, investigate how social structures can work together to find creative solutions to help urban retailing centres adjust to current and future structural changes. From this we hope to better understand how centres can and are responding and adapting to the needs and demands of modern society.

Hammond’s budget seeks to provide business rate relief for smaller retailers.  It also aims to use taxation to re-balance the inequity in cost structures that have given digital retailers, located out-of-town in cheaper locations, the competitive edge. It may go some way to help, at least temporarily, to relieve the commercial pressures but there are a multitude of ever-changing factors at play here. Only by encouraging innovation and adaptation in how the space on the High Street is used, owned and developed can more resilient place-making be achieved.

— Allison Orr

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