Shoppers hit high street after lockdown lifted in England
Thorntons recently announced the closure of all of its 61 chocolate shops and, following the collapse of Topshop and Debenhams, large lots remain vacant. Even the mighty John Lewis has warned there will be further closures on top of eight stores it shut last year. But seeds of change ARE visible. Yesterday it was announced that unemployment is falling more quickly than expected. The Office for National Statistics revealed that between January and February, the number of people in work rose by 0.2 percent, defying expectations.
As the shops still standing prepare to reopen from April 12, Chancellor Rishi Sunak has introduced £5billion of grants to help retail and hospitality businesses get ready.
But even bigger plans are afoot. A reinvention of our high streets is underway – and the future is not just retail.
Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick has announced a £56million “Welcome Back” fund to “spruce up” high streets and seaside towns with parks, green spaces, outdoor seating and flowers.
As food stalls and festivals are launched, cuts to red tape will encourage businesses to set up tables and chairs outside their premises. There will be an emphasis on socially-distanced socialising.
Then there is London’s Oxford Street where it is predicted one-fifth of shuttered premises will never reopen. The once premier West End shopping destination is set for a £235million revamp, backed by £150million of Westminster City Council’s money to create “the greenest, smartest, most sustainable district of its kind anywhere in the world”.
Melvyn Caplan, deputy leader for the council says: “People no longer want to just visit a retail attraction, they want other things as well.”
London’s Oxford Street is in line for a £235m green facelift
The ambitious proposals, incorporating “more cultural and leisure activities”, will introduce restaurants, enlarged pedestrian areas pop parks projects areas, pop-up parks, and greening projects. Retail units will become part-office spaces and areas around cultural destinations, such as The Photographers’ Gallery, will be expanded.
Westminster has submitted plans to transform Debenhams into an art gallery, and a 25m-high temporary mound to be erected at the Park Lane end of Oxford Street later this year is set to attract 200,000 visitors.
Dubbed “Marble Arch Hill”, the man-made scaffold, draped in trees and greenery, will offer views over Hyde Park.
Cllr Caplan stresses the area “will not become a theme park” but visitors can expect to enjoy more experiences such as indoor golf ranges.
“People will come to a destination because it’s exciting and interesting,” he says. “For any area to stay relevant, you need different things. Just going to a department store isn’t relevant any more.”
‘Marble Arch Hill’ may lure shoppers back to Oxford Street
Last month, Stockton Borough Council unveiled its proposals to demolish half of Stockton-on-Tees’ high street and the Castlegate Shopping Centre, replacing them with a riverside park, amphitheatre steps and panoramic views. Almost £21million of the £41million price tag could come from Gov the Government’s £1billion Future High Streets Fund.
Such a bold vision will not be easily replicated everywhere but some high streets are already evolving into social and cultural hubs.
Historic England recently announced a £7.4million, four-year High Street Cultural Programme celebrating the historical character of high streets. Funded by the Treasury, it is part of the public body’s £95million High Streets Heritage Action Zone (HSHAZ) initiative to regenerate 68 historic high streets across England.
HSHAZ will transform dilapidated properties into homes, work and community spaces. Historic building features will be restored, while cultural projects will entice pedestrians back.
Ellen Harrison, the woman in charge, says the aim is to make people “fall back in love” with their high street.
“We hope people rediscover the pride they have in their local high street or express, to celebrate and enjoy it if they already had it,” she says.
A national programme of events will include photography, film, ebooks and live performances.
This summer, a project called Twin Towns will connect two high streets in different regions through shared themes of identity. For example, poet Louise Fazackerley will create a choreographed dance film celebrating ballroom in Blackpool and northern soul dancing in Wigan. All live events will be Covid-19 secure.
Stockton-on-Tees shopping centre will go
“For two of our Twin Towns – Ramsgate and the Isle of Wight – we will ask people to build scale models of some of the buildings due to be regenerated,” Ellen says. “Small kits will be sent to people’s houses. The returned finished models will form part of a model village displayed in shop windows on the high street.”
Director of the Institute of Place Management Dr Steven Millington has praised the initiative.
His research fed into the High Street 2030: Achieving Change report that advised politicians to reject “identikit high streets” and to use “local and expert knowledge” – ideas incorporated into HSHAZ. “It’s not just about restoring heritage,” Steven says.
“There is a cultural programme and people can celebrate the high street through events and festivals. The broader picture is that the future is not retail. That is the challenge for so many town centres.”
He is scathing about shortsighted council planning decisions taken decades ago, citing one mall he visited last year.
“In the 1960s they demolished people’s homes, cinemas and independent shops to make way for the shopping centre,” he says. “It was full of national brands but they’ve all gone bust.
“What it needs are more residential properties, independent shops and non-retail activities.”
A recent Savills report stated there was 40 percent too much retail space in the UK. Out-of-town shopping centres started the rot in local high streets, which was accelerated by online shopping.
Last July, Mr Jenrick overhauled planning laws to allow town centres to expand their housing remit by building upwards, without required planning permission. Critics argued it could lead to a rise in “slum housing” but the idea was supported by the think-tank Social Market Foundation (SMF), which estimated that 800,000 homes could be built.
An SMF report said repurposing empty retail units into homes could address the housing shortfall and “support a bustling café culture and enhance social capital”.
Ellen says we need only look at the past to understand the potential of high streets. “They weren’t always so centred around retail,” she says. “They were meeting places, landmarks and centres of the community, remaining so as they’ve become retail hubs.
“It’s why they’re important because they have a central role in our lives, helping to ground us and give us a sense of place.”
Our high street shopping parade, featuring terraced shop fronts and civic services, only originates from the 20th century interwar period, says architectural historian Susie Barson.
“In France, public buildings are set around squares or minor streets off the high street,” she says. “Our post offices, public library and police stations feature on the main parade. That makes our high streets distinctive.”
The Georgian period heralded the arrival of what we would today recognise as a high street as wealthy pastoral folk flocked to Savile Row to seek out tailors. Early versions followed the example of models from the Continent, Susie says.
The Burlington Arcade in Piccadilly Circus, built in 1815, was modelled on French arcades, and bazaars appeared in the former Pantheon public entertainment hall on Oxford Street.
Advances in technology and cast iron supports saw large shopfront windows become architectural features from the 1840s onwards.
Store closures by John Lewis will force high streets to change
The Victorian high street boom was characterised by independent businesses whose skills were appreciated by shoppers. “People got to know the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker and all of those sorts of traders,” says Susie. “They were the pillars of the community.”
She believes “the ethics of the high streets are changing”, especially as people crave a return to “kindness and ethical shopping” in these uncertain times. “People are fed up with the Philip Greens of this world,” she says of the controversial Top Shop boss.
Like Steven, she argues costly business rates relied upon by cash-strapped councils must be addressed. Mr Sunak extended the business rates holiday until June in his Budget but their long-term future will be decided this autumn.
One positive trend to emerge from Historic England’s work is an increase in an intergenerational conversation between older people and youngsters who, Ellen says, “share the history of places, collective memories and collecting memories”.
Susie believes this period will become a “marker in the history of the high street”. She wants an end to the fried chicken and betting shops that have blighted our high streets in recent years, calling on local people to join neighbourhood forums to inform councils.
“When we talk about the future of the high street in 20 years, wouldn’t it be great if we could see far fewer of those places,” she says. “We want services that people really value.”