At the time of writing, more than a year has elapsed since the beginning of the first national lockdown. The initial shock of the changes brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic has given way to cautious anticipation at the prospect of permanent reopening. As we plan for reopening and recovery, it is worth taking stock of these changes and considering whether any could provide grounds for optimism and opportunity – amongst the terrible costs we have endured.
The changes in the economic geography of the city during lockdown have reinforced the importance of our local places. The adoption of working from home, closures of retail and hospitality, and the temporary end of commuting en masse have all changed how and where we spend our time and money. City centres have seen both footfall and spending decline dramatically: yet in some high streets that serve more local catchment areas, spending has increased. 1
At the same time, the importance of our communities has been powerfully demonstrated. The early days of lockdown saw millions of people mobilise at speed. Local groups new and old took action to support their neighbours, and have continued to do so. New relationships also formed between different organisations, and established ways of working have changed – frequently for the better.
These issues come together around the places at the centre of our communities – high streets and town centres. Across Great Britain, 16 per cent of the population lives within 200 metres of a high street 2 – while in urban areas, the proportion is even higher. Across London as a whole, the figure is 37 per cent – but in 11 London boroughs it is over 50 per cent, 2 and for some like the City of Westminster and Kensington & Chelsea it is closer to 70 per cent.
As well as being places to shop, we know that high streets provide the setting for a whole range of broader social and economic benefits. As communities are the principal users of high streets, there is a compelling case for them having greater influence, as this would help ensure that high streets serve the needs and wants of a place. As the long-standing decline of mass retail accelerates, now is an opportune moment to consider – at a strategic and holistic level – what functions these places should fulfil, and how local people can have a stake in their operation.
Successfully reimagining the centre of our neighbourhoods is no small task. It will require a shift in thinking across a range of interests and actors, as well as the ability to take a longer view and accept a broader conception of value. Significant policy changes will be required across land use, ownership, transport, housing, taxation and local powers. This report is not intended to solve all of these issues, but rather makes the case for how greater community influence can play a crucial role in the big picture. As such, it aims to serve as a guide for enabling communities to take on a more active role in the stewardship of their high street. Recent proposals for Community Improvement Districts are examined as one mechanism to achieve this, and the report also provides a set of principles and practical steps to engage people and sustain community participation. This is with a view to making our high streets the beating heart of social, economic, civic and cultural life in our neighbourhoods once again.
The report’s findings are the result of a mixture of quantitative and qualitative analysis. Researchers conducted a review of the existing academic and grey literature, examining the relationship between ownership and vacancy rates across different town centres in London. We also carried out over 30 hours of interviews with key stakeholders across the UK, including community groups, local authorities, place managers, BIDs, retailers, landlords, academics and civic societies.