The future of the high street - retail apocalypse or sunlit uplands?

16 Oct 2018

The impact of the digital age can be felt in almost every aspect of our lives and our cities have not been spared. A lot has been written about the decline of retail and the high street in particular, the reasons have been well documented and fall essentially into three categories:

Firstly, rents and business rates have increased across the board.  These increases reflect the better trading conditions of years past rather than the extremely difficult trading conditions faced today. The additional revenue that retailers need to break even puts huge pressure on an already struggling sector. Too often local or central government policy is reactive rather than proactive. 

Secondly, the Internet has fundamentally changed the way we shop, turning the traditional retailer into a showroom for goods that will be purchased, possibly at a discount, online. Furthermore, online retailers do not carry the overheads of their bricks and mortar competitors, and have far more advantageous tax positions.

Finally, out of town shopping with ample car parking and the reappraisal of the way we travel in our cities has also had an impact.  Traditional retail wants parking and this goes against the way town planning sees the private car. Our cities will be better without cars, but the effect on retailers is significant.

All of these issues need to be considered in the context of our changing society. The high street was a Victorian idea, which at its peak served the newly urbanised population. They developed along the principal routes into our towns and cities, and the commercialisation of the street increased with time. High streets, and there are over 3000 roads that bear that name, were more often than not local, serving the needs of the immediate residential neighbourhood.

The future of the high street - retail apocalypse or sunlit uplands?

Often today these streets have lost their purpose, the demographic of our cities is undergoing radical change. Traditional neighbourhoods have been de-stabilised and historically important streets such as High Street Kensington are struggling to survive.  The neighbouring residential stock is often bought for investment not homes, and Airbnb and buy to let makes it even more difficult to get onto the lower rungs of the housing ladder. This is exacerbated by large retailers such as Westfield, with 4000 car spaces they attract most of the traditional retailing that is left.

Furthermore the digital age has changed us into people who value experience over possession and individuality over brand. We are becoming a society of renters and borrowers rather than owners, this will allow us to live where we please, and cheap flights encourage global mobility. Digital communication binds us together in an ostensibly transparent but increasingly neurotic fashion. The next generation will no longer have the traditional loyalty to home, city or nation. 

So what is the future of the high street? We either have to encourage their survival as retail centres, or find new uses for the existing building stock. The rapid and ruthless decline of the pub is being reflected in the demise of the high street itself, as shops are converted to restaurants and cafes, which in turn are struggling to survive. Even estate agents, travel agents, banks and building societies no longer need a shop front, and there are not enough independent coffee shops and cheesemongers to replace them all. There are certain things that the Internet cannot replace, we will always need hairdressers, dentists, laundries and nail bars, but almost everything else can be bought online.

Large shopping centres are owned and managed by one landlord; because the property ownership of our high streets is fragmented it is difficult to create an identity for them. We need to make a visit to our high streets an enjoyable and multi faceted experience that is an alternative to the mall. Local planning could aid this by building a vision and strategy that all of the landlords buy into.The biggest landowners have shown how to “curate” the shops to suit their wider property holdings; our Pavilion Road project for the Cadogan Estate is an example of that. Food retail reflects our desire for experience, and specialist shops, independent restaurants and bars, and farmers markets can provide that.

But this can only happen where it can be afforded and where it is needed, and there are simply too many high streets and they are too big. These empty ground and first floor units on once heavily trafficked streets need to be reinvented. Perhaps in the following ways:

The future of the high street - retail apocalypse or sunlit uplands?
Pavilion Road, Chelsea

Residential: Historically the high street often developed out of smaller residential streets, indeed a lot of London’s shops were once houses, and some survive today. The government is proposing to relax Permitted Development Rights (PD) in non-town centre areas to allow change of use to residential. There is nothing wrong with increasing the residential density above the shops, and converting the dead ends of the street into residential, but PD is not the answer. It will lead to unregulated development and to succeed development needs to be controlled and planned. 

Leisure, Health Well-being and exercise: As well as allowing some of the larger retail units to become gyms or spas, the landscape of the high street should be re evaluated. Dramatically reducing traffic might be the solution rather than the problem, improved air quality, improved greenery and trees and encouraging running, cycling and exercise.

The future of the high street - retail apocalypse or sunlit uplands?
KXU Wellness Hub, Pavilion Road

Making and working: It is a recent phenomenon that retail centers have been dominated by chains, something that high rents and rates encourage. If landlords were to look above the shop fronts they would discover potentially greater value in small offices, co-working spaces, hotels and much needed residential space. Ground floor shops could be craft based, maker spaces or workshops.

Education: Why not use shops as classrooms? Imagine a school or a university as a street, something we investigated when I was teaching at Sheffield University some years ago. Empty shops become classrooms, laboratories and studios; churches are used as assembly halls etc.

In conclusion, there is a place for the high street but not as we know it. That battle has been won by Westfield, and by using the planning system we need to develop focused retail areas that not only serve the local community but specialise too. Flexibility of use is important, but it needs to be controlled, changes to the Permitted Development rules are not the answer, but there is no doubt that tweaking taxation would help.