Reviving the high street: getting the mix right

“Many town centres are defined by their distinctive historic character which can play a crucial role in creating an attractive setting … particularly as a ‘destination’ that encompasses more than a retail experience.”

“We want to see more people being creative about how they design and use the spaces in their town centres and high streets, in a way that takes its inspiration from local characteristics and resonates with local people, boosts the local economy, and helps keep the community heart beating.”  

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Retail is improving – which will be helping the high street – but it’s a mixed message:

Retail rebound lost pace in August | telegraph,co.uk (paywall)

U.K. Retail Sales for August 2020: Continue Rebound as Dark Clouds Gather – Bloomberg

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Sidmouth’s high street has been buzzing, as seaside towns are doing better and smaller towns too:

High streets recovery tracker | Centre for Cities

Working from home: a Sidmouth perspective – Vision Group for Sidmouth

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Interestingly, whilst the headlines proclaim it’s “retail” which is helping the high street, it is as much the lure of a bargain meal out and locals staying at home which is helping:

Michael Hewson, chief market analyst at CMC Markets, said the government’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme likely helped sales last month by increasing the number of people visiting city and two centers. “Anecdotally, there were queues outside some restaurants in my local area, every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday during August,” Hewson said ahead of the data. “It would be a surprise therefore if we didn’t get a decent number for retail sales.”

The ONS said visits to supermarkets and other food shops decreased throughout much of August, which could be to do with the meal discounting scheme. “The Eat Out to Help Out scheme encouraged many consumers to spend more money in food outlets, which may have reduced spending in supermarkets,” the stats body said.

Samuel Tombs, chief UK economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics, said the boom in staycations likely helped retail sales in August too. “Even if UK residents who stayed in the country did not go on holiday, they still will have purchased food and other goods that normally they would have bought abroad,” Tombs said.

ONS August retail sales data: Rebound continues with fourth month of growth | uk.finance.yahoo.com

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In which case, the future vibrancy of the high street will have to depend on more than spending in shops:

Many once-distinctive town centres became home to the same old set of stores owned by a limited number of powerful chains. To survive and thrive, High Streets need to adapt. But before they do, according to Prof Parker, “places need to understand their function and the things that draw people in to the town centres”. To reinvigorate them, we need what you might call a Mars bar approach; building town centres which aren’t just about buying stuff, but places you can “work, rest and play”.

How to save the UK’s crisis-hit High Streets – BBC News

Save our High Street: creating places where you can “work, rest and play” – Vision Group for Sidmouth

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And that means having a town centre which is many things – with a mixture of places to shop, eat, work and live:

Our changing shopping habits – Vision Group for Sidmouth

Street café culture for Sidmouth? – Vision Group for Sidmouth

Working from home: reviving town life – Vision Group for Sidmouth

Lighthouse Sidmouth Workhub to reopen – Vision Group for Sidmouth

Turning high street banks into housing – Vision Group for Sidmouth

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In other words, it’s more than ‘retail-led development’ which will help town centres:

The Lanes, Brighton: wikimedia

Jan Gehl, the architect credited with turning around the city of Copenhagen, says: “If you asked people 20 years ago why they went to central Copenhagen, they would have said it was to shop. But if you asked them today, they would say it was because they wanted to go to town [to take in the atmosphere].” Gehl’s focus on creating public space has been remarkable for the Danish capital, with four times as many people spending time in the city. Its thriving public life is widely acknowledged as something to emulate. 

But while the rhetoric in Britain proclaims a similar cafe-style urban renaissance in towns and cities, policy is fast heading in the opposite direction under the guise of what is known as “retail-led development”, which roughly translates as “shopping makes places”.

In Brighton, for example, the success and popularity of the rabbit warren of streets known as The Lanes rests on the fact that many of the buildings are listed and cannot expand, thus producing a fertile breeding ground for browsing around the numerous tiny boutiques or stopping at offbeat bars and restaurants. Of course, the area may not provide the economies of scale of a Walmart, but it is an attraction all the same.

The fear is that places such as The Lanes are becoming the exception to the rule. In Paris, French policy makers have become so concerned about the British experience that they have described the trend as “la Londonisation” and have introduced planning regulations specifically to prevent it. As a result, about half the shops in Paris will have restrictions placed on them to prevent changes of use, so that a foodshop remains a foodshop and a bookshop or a greengrocer cannot become part of a mobile phone chain…

Political footfall | Society | The Guardian

“The town square is more than a marketplace.” – Vision Group for Sidmouth

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And so we must make the best of what we have:

Sidmouth has more listed buildings than anywhere in Devon apart from Exeter, so why don’t we capitalise on that?

Money available for Historic High Streets – Vision Group for Sidmouth

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It’s all about appreciating local ‘character’ – which is what draws residents and visitors alike.

The 2014 “Heritage 2020 Framework” document pointed to the importance of the historic environment:

The report suggests that many town centres are defined by their distinctive historic character which can play a crucial role in creating an attractive setting for retailing and reinforcing competitive advantage, particularly as a ‘destination’ that encompasses more than a retail experience.

HighStreetsResources_Final_Web.pdf

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Finally, as a government paper from 2012 said, it’s all about getting the right mix:

We want to see more people being creative about how they design and use the spaces in their town centres and high streets, in a way that takes its inspiration from local characteristics and resonates with local people, boosts the local economy, and helps keep the community heart beating.  

Re-imagining urban spaces to help revitalise our high streets

   
© Vision Group for Sidmouth 2005-2022