High streets face a ‘new normal’ with old problems

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Vidhya Alakeson writes about the future of high streets post-lockdown for the Financial Times
12 Jun, 2020

High streets are not just collections of shops and restaurants. They are the heart and soul of a city, town or neighbourhood

– Vidhya Alakeson CEO, Power to Change

As shops reopen on Monday, many retailers will be looking nervously at their tills and wondering if they’re even close to viable in this “new normal”. But let’s not forget: even the old normal wasn’t working.

Over the past two years we have seen a stream of big-name retailers shutting up shop. The rot had already reached the big commercial landlords who were finding it ever harder to achieve the rental income to which they had become accustomed. Before Covid-19, retailers and landlords were in a tense stand-off over rents, waiting to see what would happen next.

Socially distanced shopping could well be the last straw. And the government is clearly aware of the danger. Recent briefings suggest they want to support the high street with a radical shake-up of the planning system, allowing landlords to switch from commercial to residential use with ease.

Some flexibility could be welcome. The UK clearly has too much retail space. Consumer habits and lifestyles are changing rapidly, so it’s important our built environment keeps up. After the crisis, there will be greater need for shared workspaces and start-up business spaces as we rebuild the economy. Making it easier for former retail spaces to adapt to these new needs is sensible.

But there are real dangers in an uncontrolled relaxation of planning. Commercial landlords, faced with a perfect storm of collapsing rents, failing tenants and a wider downturn, would surely take this opportunity to turn much of their real estate into housing. That might go some way towards tackling the housing crisis. But it could be a historic disaster for towns and cities all over the country.

High streets are not just collections of shops and restaurants. They are the heart and soul of a city, town or neighbourhood. They are community hubs where people come together and they fundamentally shape the identity of where we live.

Before the growth of consumer culture from the 19th century onwards, high streets were as much civic as commercial, with guildhalls, churches and public meeting spaces mixed in with stores and markets. Before Covid-19, there was growing recognition that the future for high streets lay in meeting people’s deep desire for more community.

The crisis has, if anything, reinforced this appetite, with many of us relying on neighbourhood networks to get by. A YouGov poll for the RSA think-tank in April found that 40 per cent felt a stronger sense of local community since lockdown and 85 per cent want at least some of the changes to stick.

The government’s approach risks missing this all together. Planning is as much about local consent as anything else. If our response leaves out engagement with local people, we won’t just circumvent their needs and miss this chance to renew our high streets. We’ll lose the very identity of the places where we live.

There is another way. Even before Covid-19, people had started to reinvigorate failing high streets by getting together and forming community organisations. Baltic Triangle, a community-owned business, transformed an area of Liverpool that was derelict and unproductive into a vibrant digital and creative quarter, incubating new small businesses and creating hundreds of jobs. It’s a slower process of recovery than simply flipping retail spaces into housing, but it’s long-lasting and works with the grain of the place.

We have a chance to build on the recent explosion of community spirit and put people in charge of the future of their high streets. But that will require some big moves.

First, the government should put 1,000 high-street properties directly into community ownership. We’ll probably see many more empty shops in the coming months; our research found that shops in community ownership are much less likely to be empty.

Second, councils should work with community organisations to develop long-term strategies for their high streets. A new model being piloted in Glasgow could point the way.

Finally, government support for high streets needs to stop focusing on raw infrastructure and recognise that it’s the businesses on a high street that give places their vitality and meaning. To build more vibrant high streets, the government should support a new wave of local entrepreneurship — from makerspaces to bike repair shops and everything in between.

Whatever happens when shops reopen, it’s clear we need to move beyond the traditional high street. The question is: what do we really want from these places? My suggestion is simple. Put local people in charge of answering the question, and they will most likely find the right answer.