We have been left with town centres that are essentially redundant retail hubs. In a 2019 autumn report, Savills reported that vacant retail units account for over 75 million sq ft of retail space, with 40% of such stores remaining vacant for three years or more.
Our town centres have reached a crisis point. Something needs to be done to stop further decline. We must use our imagination and practical ability to turn high streets into places people want to visit frequently.
Redefining the high street
Essentially, there are two reasons to go shopping: either you want to go, or you have to. Yet, with the rise of out-of-town retail and ecommerce, it seems unlikely that we’ll ever have to regularly shop in the high street again. It’s far more convenient to drive to a supermarket or order items online.
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Of course, there are some specialist businesses like estate agents, loan shops, opticians and dentists that still reside alongside the new additions of charity shops and vape stores. But, while these businesses may be necessary, they aren’t going to draw large crowds of regular shoppers. People don’t usually want to visit these businesses; they just have to on occasion.
So, the question arises: what do we want our high streets to look like now that retail has gone elsewhere?
If retail is to be relevant, then in the absence of any need to go shopping in the high street, we need to create a place that people want to visit. To return to being bustling hubs of activity, town centres must become leisure destinations. They need restaurants, cafes and pubs, independent fashion stores and other specialist retailers, theatres, cinemas, music and sports venues. It will need small, independent retailers providing an extensive range of products to create a happy place for browsers. Somewhere that people want to visit for a day trip or for evening entertainment.
This sounds terrific, but can it become reality? On the face of it, it may seem counter-intuitive, but the secret to achieving this revitalisation of commerce is to create more residential property in town centres. When more people are living in our town centres, there will automatically be greater demand, not only for local services, shops and eateries, but also for convenience stores and entertainment.
People like living in towns that have a vibrant high street close by. So, the more residential property there is, the more independent retail there will be, encouraging further residential, and so on. This could create a virtuous cycle leading to the wider regeneration of the high street.
So, how do we achieve this transformation? We need to repurpose the existing buildings in our town centres to create the right balance of homes, workspaces, retail, leisure and services operating side-by-side. But the starting point has to be residential. By creating attractive homes in town centres, the demand for these other shops and services follows automatically.
Historically, this type of residential development has been difficult due to strict planning regulations. However, the past 10 months, we have seen lots of changes to the planning rules in England which will make the transformation process much easier to achieve. Providing we maintain a healthy balance between residential and commercial, 2021 should mark the start of a much-needed renaissance for UK town centres.