Long live our High Streets

Much is made of the online revolution, but the High Street is here to stay. Rejoice.

Betting shops, payday lenders and pawn shops are now familiar High Street features alongside the express stores of the global grocery empires such as Tesco and Sainsburys. Empty shop lots are also becoming a sight for sore eyes and serve to trigger nostalgia for the enterprises forced into administration as well as sympathy for those made jobless. Our High Streets are physical communal spaces with an important social and commercial role to play in society. Both the Government and retailers are currently searching for innovative ideas to reinvigorate the shopper ‘experience’ and ensure longevity for our High Streets.

The High Street innovation fund launched last year after the Mary Portas review was designed to revitalise high streets is specified towns across the UK. However, 10 of the 12 selected towns for a share of the £1.2 million of taxpayer’s money are now noticing a substantial increase in empty lots. Towns such as Bedford, Croydon, Dartford, Nelson, Stockport and Wolverhampton all saw over 95 units close down on the high street.  Portas claims there is ‘no simple solution to the crisis on the high streets, there are no quick fixes but 400 towns up and down the country are working on different plans to try and reinvigorate their high streets’.

The Government have recently introduced new planning rules for local councils meaning owners of premises no longer need to apply for permission to change the use of shop lots. It is hoped this will boost economic growth and bring the empty shop lots populating high streets back into business. Portas welcomes this move to reduce red tape, whereas others such as the LGA Chairman Sir Merrick Cockell view this as a ‘panic measure’ causing ‘lasting damage’.  Cockell charts the negative impact by focusing on the ‘clustering’ of bookmakers on high streets in low income areas with Tottenham High Road currently hosting a total of 11 betting shops.  Therefore, the extent to which these new planning rules help or hinder the state of the high street is debatable.

So what can we do to save our high streets and revitalise those boarded up lots vacated by the likes of HMV, Jessops and Comet?

Deputy Director of Policy Exchange David Skelton suggests we make high streets more welcoming and vibrant places, which adapt to consumer behaviour to include niche stores as well as ‘click and collect’ shops.  The need to make high streets more mixed use in composition is argued by Professor Richard Sennett from the LSE who talks of introducing elder care centres, medical clinics and the need for government bureaus to help support pop up music and art venues. Sennett believes high streets must be more than just places to shop while also acknowledging that ‘the capitalist beast must be fed’.  Shadow Business Secretary and Labour MP Chuka Umnna, states the need to promote multichannel retailing by combining online trading with vibrant high street outlets. Retailers such as Argos and John Lewis have successfully employed this strategy and Umnna believes this could be built on by widening collection points to post offices and other local community sites.

In this way the digital world should be seen as an ally rather than an enemy, providing opportunities to connect with customers overseas and widen business markets. New UK based global companies are emerging such as the online fashion retailer Asos, who have worked to successfully establish a presence and consumer base online.  The furniture retailer Oak Furniture Land began its life as an eBay retailer in 2003 and has now set up a website and opened up numerous stores across the UK to deal with the increasing demand for its products. 65% of its total trade is now done in conventional stores.

Despite shoppers shifting their purchasing power online, the value of the physical branch or shop lot is not to be underestimated. Last year the UK shoppers spent a total of £311 billion shopping and 90% of this money was paid for goods in conventional rather than online shops and stores. With retail analysts Kantar also finding that 70% of us like to touch a product before we buy, the mission to ensure the long life of our high streets have never been more relevant.

Emma Rees is studying a Masters in Politics & Communications at the LSE

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