The historic policy focus on restoring high streets to their heyday of retail is understandable. The dominant paradigm of the UK in the late twentieth century generally understood high streets as places for shopping. The mass redevelopment and new planning system of the postwar era focused on attracting shoppers – both as a mark of prestige for the local area and as a route to prosperity. The value of business rates levied on retail, in contrast with industrial properties, similarly made the retail-led development of town centres attractive to local authorities. 11
However, despite this popular conception and the long-standing policy consensus, the actual functions of high streets and town centres as places were already many and varied. High streets are by definition highly complex places, which respond to and are shaped by a far broader range of influences than just consumer shopping preferences.
The high street is only “dying” if we take the viability of bricks and mortar retail as its only vital sign.
A look at the range of factors that impact on the success and longevity of high streets shows why this is the case. In London, a large number of existing high streets came into being as a result of locational advantages alongside major transport routes. These developed in a linear pattern out from the medieval city – following Roman roads in many cases – and offering the possibility of enough passing visitors to support commercial activity. Other high streets developed out of villages which had come into being due to some other intrinsic advantage to the place, and which have long since been incorporated into the city as it expanded. These are typically more spatially consolidated – a “town centre” rather than the classic linear high street. The literature has categorised these two typologies as “connected” or “detached”, 12 and has shown how movement, accessibility and transport mode are still crucial in determining perceptions of place 12 as well as money spent there. 14
High streets’ longevity has been sustained by providing enough different reasons to keep people coming. Diversity has been at the heart of their persistence for centuries. A detailed look at particular high streets over time demonstrates this. Tracking land use in one south London suburban high street since the late 19th century shows that, despite retail being the dominant non-domestic use, the high street has always served a wider range of functions than commonly appreciated. The problem is that local and national policy has not always recognised this diversity.
Figures 1 – 4 demonstrate how Surbiton high street in the Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames has persisted by being able to adapt across periods of great change. Over the years, a number of activities taking place in the high street have remained – but the actual function of each building, and the relative proportion of different activities across the whole mix, has changed substantially. The ability of a place to adapt is in part determined by the physical fabric itself. Block layouts, frontages, depth of units, floor fit-outs and subdivisions all play a role in allowing individual units, and a place as a whole, to adapt. In turn, these features have been determined by a complex and interrelated range of factors, including their position within wider movement networks, land ownership, real estate investment patterns and planning policy.
How different people use high streets
This diversity of uses and functions is not just an historic artefact, however. Beyond land use surveys, vacancy rates and other retail-related metrics, a closer look at how groups and individuals use the high street makes its fundamental importance clearer.
In a detailed study of six different high streets across London, retail was shown to make up 55 per cent of non-domestic uses of buildings on average. However, when high street users were surveyed about the purpose of their visit, 66 per cent of trips to the high street were revealed to be for reasons other than shopping. 15 Further surveys across different case study areas have shown similar results: in a more recent study, 45 per cent of high street users surveyed said their primary use of the high street was not retail related. 16
The importance of the high street is even more pronounced for underserved and marginalised groups. The same research found that people not in employment were over-represented proportionally as visitors to the high street. The high concentration of jobs around high streets could explain this. 41 per cent of all businesses in London outside of the Central Activities Zone are on a high street, along with 28 per cent of the jobs. 17 In a noteworthy comparison, Peckham’s town centre accommodates 2,100 businesses and 13,400 jobs, whilst Westfield Stratford accommodates 300 businesses and 8,500 jobs. 18
Detailed site-specific analyses often show highly integrated local networks of businesses and workspace that offer accessible routes into employment and enterprise with relatively low barriers to entry. 18, 12 This can be particularly important for recent immigrants, who can find a point of connection with global networks and an anchor in the city through established communities.
These links between formal economic activity and informal personal connections or support are a characteristic feature of London’s high streets. The concentration of commercial activities alongside community services, libraries, places of worship, leisure and culture offers a setting for contact with our neighbours, as well as opportunities for positive social interactions. High streets and town centres are a stage for public life and social integration. 21
It is important to note that the particular high street or town centre that people feel most closely connected to may not always be their closest one. Some people have a strong connection to places linked to communities of identity. Others might spend a lot of time on a high street close to their child’s school, their place of worship, their bus stop, or one which has the shops they most want to use. As such, we don’t believe that involvement in town centre governance should be too formally constrained by geography – although in general, councils, community groups and other organisations will usually want to prioritise engagement with the people who live within immediate walking distance of a high street.
A picture should be emerging of a uniquely rich ecosystem of social and economic life and value. We need to preserve and enhance the good which already exists, and foster more where it doesn’t. It is important to remember that high street renewal will happen in already-existing places.
Understanding what the strengths and assets of a place are – and not treating renewal as wiping the slate clean – is crucial.
Assets could include physical spaces which add value, as well as community strengths and skills. The goal is to create town centres and high streets which have a varied and wide mix of uses, serve local needs in the broadest sense, respect local identity and differences, and remain interesting, welcoming places to spend time.
The role for communities
The good news is that the policy focus has begun to change in recent years. The argument that retail will no longer be the dominant attraction on high streets is commonly accepted by policymakers as well as retail and property professionals. There is increasing momentum behind the idea that communities must play a meaningful part in shaping their local centres, and a growing alignment between private, public and social sectors. The Grimsey Review advocated a radical shift in power to the local level for both local authorities and communities, adding a powerful senior industry voice. A Housing, Communities & Local Government select committee report in 2019 similarly articulated a vision of town centres thriving in 2030 “if they become activity-based community gathering places where retail is a smaller part of a wider range of uses and activities”. 22
The Greater London Authority (GLA) has made “High Streets for All” a key mission for recovery from the pandemic, with the aim of “creating thriving, inclusive and resilient high streets and town centres, with culture, diverse shops, and jobs within walking distance of all Londoners”. 17 The mission recognises that there is a reciprocal relationship between strong communities and strong high streets:
To build strong communities we need to provide what people
value and want through local assets, business and partnerships.
We need more “people focused” businesses and services and we
need to get locals more involved in the design and management
of places. 24
Funding has been made available via the “High Streets Challenge” to develop strategies that respond to this mission.
Holistic and strategic renewal
This increasing momentum is feeding through to action. In 2019, the UK government commissioned the High Streets Task Force (HSTF) to provide practical support and guidance for local leaders, share data and resources, and coordinate a national approach to high streets. Comprised of a range of experts from the public, private and community sectors, the HSTF takes as a starting point that “multiple retailers will no longer be the dominant attraction in most town centres and so we have to redefine the high street”. 27 Measures include supporting a number of “pilot areas” with in-kind expert advice to reimagine their high streets; within London, Thornton Heath in Croydon is the only such pilot area.
The HSTF have developed a framework called the “4 Rs of renewal” for approaching the areas of strategic priority necessary to redefine the high street. 28 For each priority, we explain where we see a clear rationale for meaningful community involvement, and demonstrate how community can be the thread that ties each priority together.
29. Future of London (2020). Parks and green space: does everyone feel welcome?
Retrieved from: https://www.futureoflondon.org.uk/2020/10/20/parks-and-greenspace-does-everyone-feel-welcome/