What will it take to save our high streets?

Ultimately, if high street property is in local hands, it is then connected to and accountable to that community. Rents are proportionate to local ability to pay, the mix of occupiers is diverse and reflects local needs, and high streets can be resilient and responsive in times of crisis.

Grimsey Review

Build Back Better report

The high street is back open, but we may question if it’s back for good.

Covid-19 shrank our economy by 20% in April and this has had a huge impact on our high streets. Footfall is down 80% compared to last year and will likely continue to fall into 2021 according to forecasts.

No surprise then that a fifth of high street stores plan to stay closed permanently after the coronavirus lockdown unwinds. These figures, although shocking, only continue a trend. Covid-19 has accelerated a rapid spiral of decline already underway for the last decade.

One high street leader who saw this slow-burn crisis early was Bill Grimsey. Bill has spent his career as a respected leader of big brand retailers like Wickes and Iceland, though he now regrets his efforts to build “clone town Britain”.

In recent years, he’s been an advisor to government on how to revitalise the high street and his latest report, ‘Build Back Better: Covid-19 Supplement for town centres’, focuses on the high street post-Covid-19.

A welcome change

At Power to Change, we’re delighted to see that the report reflects many of the proposals we’ve made as community businesses have made headway on the high street. In fact, we are particularly pleased to get a direct mention. So what does it say?

The report starts from a simple truth. Covid-19 has changed our priorities. People’s consumer behaviour, which was changing rapidly anyway, is now going to change more significantly and more quickly.

As we’ve re-examined what’s important to us during the crisis, we will now place more value on being healthier, happier and more connected. That’s why people now want a better quality of life on offer on their high street – not simply more shops. This is especially true given that around 20% of our shopping is done online. And they want a place where they can come together as a community, that supports a sense of local pride and identity.

The report also rightly points out that current and future generations haven’t bought into the mass retail, towns-as-shopping-centres model. Younger people want spaces to experience new things in, including friendship and connection.

We need to get much more diversity on the high street: more health and wellbeing services, shared workspaces, sports centres, local markets, makerspaces and so on. These will need to offer social and community benefits, as well as services, and grow local economies and supply chains to answer changes in consumer preferences.

So if the key question for the high street’s future is how to build a sense of place through community, what’s the answer?

The solution is a radical rethink in policy. The report contains many recommendations that echo what we’ve been thinking and what we’ve been hearing from community businesses already working to improve their local town centres. To our eyes, the three most important recommendations are:

  • As our community “anchors” will no longer be retail-based, the Government should introduce Community Right-to-Buy laws because local, social ownership of the high street is key to its renewal;
  • The Government must also help high street community businesses and social enterprises pivot to digital and so should prioritise implementation of The Digital High Street Report 2020; and
  • If it believes in localism, the Government must offer more radical ways to make community governance of high streets a reality, such as High Street Citizen’s Assemblies.

 

The role of community business

Community businesses can play a significant role in revitalising local high streets. They have proven they can: connect people; take on buildings or green spaces and run them successfully; generate income and employment; build local pride; and improve health and wellbeing. Our Take Back the High Street research showed that community-owned high street properties were less likely to be vacant.

But will the Government really change direction and support these? We’re seeing some moves from government to protect the high street. Its recent announcement of a new agreement between landlords – so often big commercial private equity investors – and tenants, is a good start but feels like a holding position. We don’t want to save the old model. We want to build back better. What the high street really needs is radical change.

This is a transformative moment to build civic, sustainable town centres for the future which are places to live, to work and to build connections. This also means allowing communities to take more control of our high streets. Community businesses will be doing their essential part to help achieve this vision. We hope the Government will do the same.