There have been many bad news stories this year. But one of the most persistent and troubling stories is that of the continued decline of our high street. We’ve seen store closures hit record levels, footfall continue to drop and household names like Thomas Cook, Debenhams, Patisserie Valerie and Oddbins all go bust.
The omens are not especially good for Christmas either, with total retail sales having fallen for the last three months. But while any job losses are unwelcome, it is becoming increasingly obvious that our high streets are going through a painful transition process. Digital disruption and changing consumer habits mean the 20th century bricks and mortar retail model no longer dominates – and a new model is struggling to emerge.
Not nearly enough attention is being paid to the new landscape slowly starting to take shape, where a community-driven approach and growth of the experience economy are laying the foundations for a future high street no longer reliant on retail.
Look beyond the welter of bad headlines and constant hand-wringing and there are many exciting developments pointing towards a bright future. And if you want a sense of what our high streets might look like in future, there are plenty of positive signs across the north.
As high streets break out of the identikit, one-size-fits-all clone town model, we’ll start to see towns and cities become a lot more interesting as they lay claim to a more distinctive identity.
Food and drink will help shape this renewal. It’s a big driver of the experience economy and Manchester’s bar and restaurant scene is growing at a faster rate than anywhere in the country. This culinary explosion knows no bounds. Whether it’s the secret restaurant scene, global food trucks or street food markets like Stockport’s Foodie Friday and food halls like Altrincham’s market house or Manchester’s Mackie Mayor, we’re creating vibrant places and strengthening community.
The 20th century high street model was based around familiar anchor tenants like Debenhams and M&S. That old regeneration model no longer applies and high streets of the future are more likely to be anchored by interesting cultural destinations. Chester’s Storyhouse is one such example. It has a theatre, library, cinema and arts centre all under one roof – with the only library in the UK open daily until 11pm.
As high streets become increasingly fluid, imaginative and innovative, we’ll also see an emphasis on places celebrating their heritage, creating more green spaces and events destinations. In Stockton on Tees, for example, the Council has prioritised cultural and public realm investment, flexible amphitheatre space and low-risk units for start-up businesses. Councillors talk of creating a different kind of place based on interconnectedness and working with communities to enhance people’s quality of life.
And in Gloucester, we’re supporting the local authority on an ambitious £85m regeneration of the city centre’s largest open space at Kings Quarter. Retail is an important part of the council’s plans, with King’s Walk Shopping Centre and local traders involved in the regeneration. But other reasons for people to visit the area and spend time in a regenerated King’s Square will be crucial to its success.
Retail will always have a place, but our high streets shouldn’t be defined solely by it. As its presence continues to shrink we may ultimately see towns grow as new ventures replace empty shops. And as we spend less money on buying things and more money on doing things, this could signify a renaissance for people, place and community. For this reason I’m far more optimistic than the headlines about high streets going into 2020.
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