High streets can be saved. Here’s how to reinvent them for the 21st century
The statistics on high-street decline are bewildering. The average high street in England and Wales has lost 40 shops in the past five years. More than 160,000 retail jobs are expected to be lost this year. After a certain point, the numbers stop meaning anything. We lose sight of the real picture. So when Debenhams last week named the 22 stores it plans to close in 2020, many will have tuned out. Haven’t we heard this before?
But in reality, that announcement will have hit people hard – and not just because of the 1,200 jobs at risk. In Ashford and Kirkcaldy, the Debenhams closures come soon after the shuttering of the local Marks & Spencer. Wolverhampton’s Debenhams only opened in 2017 amid much fanfare that this was the start of a new wave of regeneration. Make no mistake, these announcements matter.
Each of those names on a list is another place experiencing a gradual but seemingly inescapable sense of loss. It’s partly about the local economy – the vanished jobs, the knock-on effect on smaller shops, the lost opportunities for growth. But it’s more than that. It’s about the loss of meaning, of pride, of belonging. We all instinctively want to connect with the places where we live. Parades of empty shops drain our towns of identity. We experience that as a wrench – a deep and gnawing loss.
It’s no wonder, then, that plenty are trying to do something about it. In the last year we’ve had two big newspaper campaigns to save the high street, a major inquiry by a parliamentary committee and a new government expert panel (which I sat on). And the response gaining the most traction is to reform business rates. There’s no denying rates need reforming – online retail is putting huge pressure on the high street and isn’t paying nearly as much back, and the continued strain on local councils means there’s no let-up for retailers.
But ultimately, business-rate reform is about trying to revive the traditional high street model. And the truth is, that model has had its day. In the last decade or so, our shopping habits have changed completely. They aren’t changing back. It’s easy to get depressed about that. But if you go to some of the places that have long been used to rows of vacancies, you will find the real solutions to high-street decline.
In Anfield, Liverpool, a community-owned bakery called Homebaked hires local young people and inspires an ultra-loyal customer base. At the other end of the high street, a new launderette (called Kitty’s Launderette) is opening to cater for a community used to paying crippling fees for rent-to-own washing machines. The people behind the launderette, inspired by the bakery, are planning a welcoming space where customers can stick around and make connections. The community in Anfield now have big ambitions for a rejuvenated high street that once seemed devoid of life.
In Plymouth, Union Street is being slowly regenerated through local action. It started with a single disused shop being turned into a hub to try out ideas for rebuilding life on the street. Then the people behind it turned a disused pub into a community marketplace. Now the renewed energy is leading to all sorts of exciting ventures, including open-air markets and temporary play areas.
Here, change is being driven from the bottom up. This is not about big injections of government or private-sector money. It’s about what happens when there is none of that available. When communities are given a bit of space, they create fantastic enterprises that respond directly to their own needs. That’s what we need to do everywhere, not just in the most deprived neighbourhoods. We need to give people space to rebuild their high streets themselves.
That means thinking seriously about land ownership. How can we make it easier for local groups to follow Plymouth and Liverpool’s lead and buy up high streets? After all, councils can provide cheap loans just for this purpose via the Public Works Loans Board. Or they can take a risk and see what sticks. In the Wirral the local authority has taken back the half-empty market. Give the spaces to community entrepreneurs to start something, try something.
Increasingly, high-street landlords are thinking twice about whether their assets are as valuable as they thought. To give communities the space they need, we must find ways to get high-street assets in their hands quickly and cheaply. And we need to make sure community businesses such as Homebaked and Kitty’s Laundrette are at the table when developing plans for the future of town centres.
These aren’t such radical ideas. High streets have always been spaces for the local community to come together, do business and interact. With a bit of imagination, we can find a 21st-century way of making that happen again.