The high street has seemingly been on life support for many years now. The growth of out-of-town retail parks since the 1980s – and more recently, the growth in online shopping – have both been blamed for the decline in high street retail and high vacancy rates. At the most recent count, in the fourth quarter of 2020, national retail vacancy rates have been estimated at close to 14 per cent. 4 In many places, the vacancy rate will be far higher. Shopping centres are the worst off, with a vacancy rate as high as 17 per cent nationally. But for retail parks, the rate is several percentage points lower at 10 per cent – showing that high streets and shopping centres are faring worse comparatively.
The last 10 years has seen no shortage of national initiatives to try and address these issues. Yet national government-commissioned reviews and pilots have not been able to restore the thriving high streets of popular imagination. Some reforms in discrete areas of policy – from “town centre first” planning policies, to the introduction of new forms of governance like BIDs – have had successes. But they have not been enough to turn the tide alone.
Then, the COVID-19 pandemic arrived. There is a persuasive argument that COVID-19 has not caused wholly new problems for our high streets, but only accelerated existing vulnerabilities. Vacancy rates have increased in every consecutive quarter since 2018, indicating that the issues are deeper. Outdated models of local taxation, fragmented and opaque landownership, under-resourced local authorities, and the diffuse management of different elements of the high street 5 all predate COVID-19 – as does the rise of online shopping. As of January 2021, online sales made up 36 per cent of total retail spending in the UK. However, pre-pandemic, the figure was as already high as 20 per cent, and had been continually rising for over 10 years. 6 The role of technology in facilitating online shopping, and changing the way that consumers use traditional shops, is here to stay. Pre-coronavirus, estimates of oversupply in retail units were as high as 25 per cent, 7 and more recent estimates have put it as high as 30 per cent. 8
Where do we go next?
If high streets dominated by retail are a thing of the past, and there will be no “return to normal”, the question must be: where do we go from here? What do we do with the spaces that once would have been dedicated to retail? What range of activities and functions will bring people to the high street? How can they satisfy the public’s desire 9 for a recovery that enhances community connections, improves wellbeing, and tackles inequality? What role can high streets and town centres play in helping local economies to thrive? And crucially, how do local people have a say?
“More community involvement isn’t an argument anymore. The question is: how do you do it in each place?”
Senior place management professional
Part of the answer involves looking at how town centres are currently governed and managed. In each place there are different arrangements and partnerships of stakeholders, organisations and representatives, with a diverse range of approaches. Understanding how communities can (and should) fit into these institutional arrangements is one of the issues this report explores. The idea of the Community Improvement District has generated much discussion recently as a potential way to guarantee communities a seat at the table. This report aims to explore how the concept, loosely defined at the moment, could be implemented practically.
It is also important to note that this report is focused principally on commercial centres outside of the city centre. In London, that means outside of the Central Activities Zone. 10 City centres face a different set of challenges and opportunities around the mix of activities in a post-coronavirus world, and are outside the scope of this report.
“High streets” and “town centres” are defined here as areas of concentrated mixed-use social and economic activity, surrounded by residential areas. They stand in contrast to “out-of-town”, more isolated retail parks.
“Community involvement” is defined in a broad sense – from input into strategic plans and visions, through to active economic agency. We consider “community” to include local residents, people who work for local businesses, and those who work or volunteer in local third sector organisations.