Saving the British high street from decades of decline


LONDON LETTER: A new report on the state of UK town centres recommends urgent action

WALKING DOWN most provincial British high streets is a depressing experience. Paved, usually, in some shade of herring-bone red-brick, they include an often mind-numbing selection of identikit shops. Increasingly, however, many of the premises are empty.

Yesterday, Mary Portas, who came to national attention through her Channel 4 series Mary, Queen of Shops,delivered her solutions to the crisis facing the high street.

Unlike many, Portas does not hark to an halcyon era of “Ye Olde Shoppe” that must be restored, accepting that, too often, local shops have simply not been attractive enough, but she warns that UK town centres will be left as run-down deserts unless action is taken now. The speed of the decline is frightening. Almost 25,000 stores closed between 2000 and 2009. Today, one-in-six premises lie vacant, while footfall outside central London has dropped by 10 per cent.

Following planning changes made in the early 1980s, the number of out-of-town shopping centres increased four-fold between 1986 and 1997, and accelerated further thereafter. In Stalham in Norfolk, footfall on the high street fell by 55 per cent after a supermarket opened on the town’s edge. Once inside the doors of shopping centres, the public spend more money: £55 (€65) compared to £34 (€40) on the high street.

Faced with such competition from the major multiples, new independent operators are hard to find. Between 2001 and 2006, according to a Competition Commission report, 565 large grocery stores opened in Britain – just one of them run by an independent. The changes led to the coinage by the New Economics Foundation of a new term, “clone town”, to capture the “gaudy sameness” of the endless, repetitive arrays of “Gaps, Starbucks, McDonalds and WH Smiths”. The example to follow for Portas is Marylebone in London. Twenty years ago, it was a district populated by charity shops and shuttered premises. Today, it is one of the city’s most vibrant areas, filled with one-off shops and thriving coffee-bars and restaurants.

Few places have Marylebone’s natural advantages, of course, but Portas argues that much can be done if one accepts a few golden rules. One, that not everywhere can be saved, and, secondly, the future cannot just be about shopping.

“Whilst I do believe that there are many compelling instances when out-of-town retail has drained the traffic and retail offer from our town centres, it would be naive and far too easy to simply think that they are to blame for the decline of our high streets. The fact is that the major supermarkets and malls have delivered highly convenient, needs-based retailing, which serves today’s consumers well. Sadly the high streets didn’t adapt as quickly, or as well. Now they need to,” she said.

Instead, the high street must become the place where people go to meet, not just to shop. Landlords, planners, shopkeepers and locals must plan together; cut parking charges and encourage street markets, rather than pushing them away into distant car parks and fields.

In Hitchin in Hertfordshire, for example, the local town centre committee took control of the local market. Since then, it has expanded to run three times a week, drawing in custom that spills over into the bricks-and-mortar shops. In Tavistock in Devon, the Real Cheese Fair, now in its sixth year, has “created a real buzz in the town with queues pushing people into not only the local cheese shop but also every other shop in their path”.

“This is event retailing at its best, whereby a few local people have taken it upon themselves to make a real difference by identifying a gap in the market and establishing a clear, interesting and quirky brand,” said the retail expert.

Street volunteer groups should be formed to keep high streets safe, while planning restrictions curbing change of use should be discarded, she recommends. So, too, should the rule labelling betting-shops as financial services. Instead, they should be curbed, wherever possible. Major out-of-town shopping should require an “exceptional sign-off” by the secretary of state for the environment, while large retailers should be required to spell out each year what they have done for their local competitors.

Meanwhile, banks now holding properties should be required to let them out for good rents, or sell them; while other landlords should face compulsory purchase orders if they do not keep their properties up to scratch.

Portas’s arguments about parking charges are disputed by some, who say that many town centres cannot handle existing traffic, let alone more; while cash-starved local authorities increasingly depend for income on such revenues. Urging imagination, Portas points to Chester’s “Free After Three” parking promotion.

Time is not on the side of the minnows, however. In 2000, 49.4 per cent of all British consumer spending occurred on the high street. This year, the figure is down to 42.5 per cent, while the 2014 prediction is for 39.8 per cent.

In the past, many of Britain’s towns have coped with “erosion, neglect and mismanagement”. Unless “urgent action” is taken, however, Portas warns a centuries-old fabric will be lost irretrievably.