Our high streets need a bold vision to kick off a post-pandemic pickup
Straight-talking, common sense from the front line of management
QThe high street is clearly facing major difficulties – the coronavirus crisis probably contributing further to its decline. What now needs to be done by the Government, local government, property owners and so on to solve these problems and secure a sustainable future for our town centres?
AI visited several town centres in Surrey on the day after nonessential shops were allowed to open and detected a massive change of mood.
High streets were meant to be open for business, but many shops were still shut. Some, such as Carphone Warehouse and Oasis, were closed for good, while others were still getting ready to open. A few independent retailers didn’t intend to open for another two weeks or more. I hope there will be a step change in activity when the regulations change again on July 4.
Many charity shops were still shut, perhaps fearing an avalanche of items cleared out during lockdown that need sanitising before putting on display. Hair salons, nail bars and pubs were not allowed to open, and some cafés, including Costa, remained closed.
There was a weird atmosphere: no buzz or fun – just a masterclass in social distancing, with signage on shop windows, arrows on the pavement and miles of tape at two-metre intervals. It wasn’t clear whether I was witnessing the aftermath of a catastrophe or detecting signs of a major disaster about to happen.
So far, Timpson sales figures have been down on last year (-20pc), but better than expected. Business will improve when pubs and barbers are allowed to open. September should be even better when children resume their full-time schooling.
But business won’t reach its “new normal” until people are reconnected with their common sense and start living normal lives again: going to weddings, parties, football matches and flying off on foreign holidays.
Some 18 months ago, I wrote a high street report that urged the Government to support local authorities that had realistic plans to reimagine their town centres by creating community hubs that reflect their local culture. My recommendations are much more urgent now than they were then.
Some commentators suggest the high street should be allowed to wither and die, but such neglect would be irresponsible.
You can’t buy everything on the internet. We still need shops that cut keys and hair, and sell sandwiches. But high streets aren’t just about shops; towns need community hubs with dining, leisure, cafés, medical centres, arts, entertainment, offices and affordable housing.
Lockdown has demonstrated how much we need attachment to other people. Social distancing may help to combat coronavirus, but social contact is a vital part of well-being. For centuries, town centres have provided a meeting point as well as a marketplace. We still need to meet each other.
This is an infrastructure project that must be developed locally. Central government simply needs to provide investment and overcome planning obstacles. The Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government has a “High Street Task Force” to support inspirational local teams with a vision of their future town centre.
This isn’t a quick fix, but this task force needs some quick wins by finding a few far sighted local authorities who can set examples for others to follow.
The vision for each town needs all round support – from local councillors, companies, lawyers, planners and property investors.
Success is likely to be created by an inspirational local leader. Trust and teamwork are vital ingredients for a project that’s likely to challenge all the current rules – especially those to do with property and planning.
Landlords realise their game has changed; 25-year leases, with five-year upwards-only rent reviews, have long since gone. The future value of many town centre properties will be achieved by taking part in a joint redevelopment that provides the local population with a community hub they can be proud of – and importantly, enjoy.
Coronavirus has uncovered the way the high street decline can be turned into an opportunity to revive town centres, but there’s no time to lose.
Shoppers have returned to Camden Town in north London and other high streets but for retailers it continues to be an uphill fight