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Streets Ahead article 1

The Future of our high streets - the challenge we face

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Looked at one way, the current times are amongst the worst that have been faced by our towns and villages for several generations. There has arguably never been a worse time to be a high street trader. Traditional high street retailers are continuing to disappear and most of the surviving shops face harsh trading conditions. But looked at in another way, the current times can be seen as offering our towns and villages a rare opportunity to re-think what ‘the high street’ is for. Across the UK towns and villages are rising to this challenge, trying out new ideas and finding fresh ways to attract local people and visitors back into the high street.

The changes are structural and permanent. There are real opportunities for change, but the starting point must be a recognition that many of the shifts in consumer spending are structural. We need to accept that the downward and outward trends are set to continue and are not just some the short-term result of the economic downturn. It is generally accepted that most towns will never return to the hey day of the late 20th century. Many people no longer look to their local high street to get most of what they wish to buy. They want better, cheaper, quicker – and they want more choice than could ever be offered in small local shop. High street competition now comes from an enticing array of choices including large supermarkets, edge of town and out of town stores, out of area shopping malls, catalogue shopping, TV shopping channels, online and smart-phone shopping, and most potentially damaging of all ‘click and collect’, which will bring city department stores to consumer’s doorsteps.

By 2014, two out of three people in the UK population already have a smart phone. With a couple of clicks, consumers can now buy stuff from around the world, compare prices, order services, find better and cheaper shops and arrange click and collect deliveries. As a result, the high street as we have known it up until now is becoming increasingly irrelevant to a significant proportion of the public. The research shows that high street shopping as a proportion of spend is falling fast, and this trend is set to continue and possibly accelerate.

It is now widely recognized that even successful high streets of the future will in many cases have a very different mix of uses, with conventional retail sometimes representing only a small element in people’s reasons for spending time there. The changes in our high streets, though inevitable, need not be for the worse. In fact we believe that, with the right support, the next 15 years could see a re-birth of our towns and high streets as vital centres for the local community. What will constitute a successful future will differ from town to town, and from high street to high street. For some, there may still be a successful future as a predominantly retail-based economy - but only if the local demographics can sustain it and the retail community can transform and adapt to the emerging consumer expectations. This has already been realised in some towns and villages where a resurgence of interest in local shops is creating a healthy local market for high quality, versatile and innovative independent retailers. In other towns and villages, the mass of shoppers may continue to vote with their wallets – preferring to spend the majority of their weekly budget outside the high street. In these cases, a successful long term future could involve a radical rethink of the definition of the high street and a potential re-balancing of many of its elements. Many high streets are already beginning to evolve and change. The local teams are aware of the realities and they are beginning to adapt their thinking accordingly, with more emphasis on services, entertainment, events and the experience of an attractive environment. At the heart of many of these efforts to change is a recognition that regeneration is all about changing the way people think about a place.

Successful high streets and town centres are those that are busy and vibrant. Places that people want to come back to again and again. Unsuccessful high streets lack vibrancy and become desolate and unattractive. In essence, this is all about ‘sentiment’.

What is important is how people feel about a place. How they talk about it. What they say about it to others. For example, if a high street improves its appearance, or creates events that stimulate interest, shoppers are attracted back in numbers and existing traders will be encouraged to raise their game and new more enlightened enterprises will be encouraged to set up shop. Similarly, if progress is made with the choice and quality of shops and the exceptional levels of customer service offered, this will attract new and existing customers to come back. This in turn will provide an incentive for things to be done to improve the environment.

Ultimately, successful high streets need to offer an experience that attracts people back again and again – an experience that everyone will want to recommend to their friends and family – “My favorite place to spend my time and money”.  The Streets Ahead report identifies three components of regeneration that most communities are likely to need to address at some level, and that many towns teams are already thinking about and acting upon:

Tactical activities to stimulate interest and attract people back into the high street

More complex solutions, taking time to develop, aimed at making a substantive difference to the shops, services and experiences that the high street has to offer

Far-reaching ideas and plans that address the more fundamental changes, and involving the potential for a rebalancing of high street activities.