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A strategy for success: how to resuscitate London’s high streets

Our Communications Manager Amy Leppänen details the steps the government should take to make their new High Streets Strategy a success.

Just days before the government relaxed social distancing restrictions across England this month, it also quietly published a new High Streets Strategy. In it, the government has set out their plans to support our town centres as we emerge from the pandemic. Many of the government’s ideas, such as extending pavement licences, are sensible and welcome, but they must do more to make sure that communities can afford to make the changes that their high streets desperately need, and be careful not to over-convert important shopping areas into other (albeit important) uses.

No stranger to change

Our high streets have seen frequent change in recent years. Some of the nation’s most loved chains have either gone bust or moved online. From Woolworths, the shop of my childhood where I bought my first CD single, to the more recent Debenhams, with its 240 years of history, it seems that no chain is completely safe from closure. And this is going to become even more likely due to the rise of online sales; in May this year 27 per cent of total retail sales were online, compared to around 20 per cent before the pandemic, and down from a peak of 36 per cent in the November 2020 lockdown. 

In London, more than a third of us live within 200 metres of a high street and over the last 18 months we’ve been forced to spend a lot more time closer to them. While shops selling essential items were permitted to remain open during lockdown, the widespread closures and boarded up shop windows served to remind us that high streets are actually much more than just places to shop; they are places of work, somewhere we can access essential services like dentists and job centres, and where we can meet friends and family. 

A recent study by the Greater London Authority revealed that close to half of high street visitors said their primary use of the high street was not retail related. So, we should see the long-standing decline of retail shops present an opportunity to think about what we want our high streets to be like in the future. 

Continental copycat

The pandemic has already nudged policymakers to think differently about public space. Alfresco dining, common on the continent, has become the norm in many town centres across the capital. The High Streets Strategy indicates that the government plans to extend temporary pavement licences for pubs, bars, restaurants, and cafes for an additional 12 months before seeking to make them permanent. This is good news so long as access is maintained for wheelchair users and people with visual impairments. The option to dine outdoors will ensure businesses can get more trade as people navigate their changing comfort levels and make our streets more vibrant and attractive places to spend time.

Bringing vacant and derelict buildings back to life 

Beyond other measures to improve the public realm, the government has also rightly turned its attention to breathing new life into empty buildings. It had already been exploring temporary use changes (meanwhile use) in pilots but this strategy goes further, by making sure that councils have the right powers and capacity to bring long-term vacant and derelict buildings back into use on their high streets. Research for our Community town centres report indicated that councils have been reticent to use their Compulsory Purchase Order powers, which allows them to obtain land and property on regeneration grounds, due to it often being a lengthy, complicated and resource-intensive process. So it’s good to see the government acknowledge this as an issue that needs fast attention. To go further, the government should bring forward legislation it has promised on introducing a beneficial ownership register 

Converting empty shops into new homes

Beyond this, the government also wants to build on recent changes to permitted development rights to make it easier to convert empty shops (like former John Lewis stores), restaurants, and offices into new homes. This could be a good idea in principle as it would keep high streets from looking run down. while also providing new places for people to live. However it can be more complicated than that: allowing this type of conversion to go ahead without restrictions could lead many high streets to indefinitely lose places to visit, socialise and shop.  

Protection for community assets

Finally the strategy also nods to the new bidding prospectus for the Community Ownership Fund which aims to support communities to take over a community asset like a pub, if it’s at risk of closing its doors. It’s good news that the government has made revenue grants available alongside capital investment, but they should have built in greater flexibility around match funding requirements. This will disadvantage more deprived communities who may find it difficult to raise funds. The government could also go a step further by looking at converting the community right to bid, to a community right to buy, which would give the community first refusal on purchasing any property within an allocated time period. 

More power to the people

It’s good that the government seems to be making the right noises on reimagining our high streets, but they still seem to be reluctant to put power in the hands of councils and communities to decide what their local high street needs, which will be a vital component of future success. The High Streets Strategy also doesn’t mention the ‘elephant in the room’ issue of taxation: as long as there isn’t a level playing field between traditional bricks and mortar and online retail, resuscitating our high streets will be an uphill struggle. It’s crucial that the government addresses this as soon as possible. 

Amy Leppänen is Communications Manager at Centre for London. Follow her on Twitter. Read more from her here.