The High Street’s Return from the Low Road | A.D.M. Collingwood


Even an Edward Gibbon treatment of the decline and fall of the British High Street would produce a slim volume. The reasons for their troubles are clear and few.

Before the Second World War, High Streets and town centres were mosaics of shops, churches, clubs, pubs, homes, offices and premises for artisans. They were the centre of British community life. After the war, local authorities concentrated increasingly on retail, which paid higher rents and drew greater volumes of foot traffic. High Streets thus became the centre of British shopping life.

This shopping also grew evermore standardised. Smaller, independent consumer-facing businesses and craftsmen were steadily replaced with more efficient large chains – whether selling clothing, beer or frozen food – leaving a uniform set of shops, pubs and bookies in every British High Street.

However, becoming a one-crop farm left the High Street particularly vulnerable to the emergence of a blight, which duly arrived in the form of out-of-town malls, hypermarkets and retail parks. After the turn of the century, Amazon appeared and started cannibalising already weakened High Streets, leaving many of them near unviable.

We are told that the pandemic was therefore the carrier bag that broke British High Street’s back. However, it is possible that the shifts of economic life the pandemic has forced upon us will resuscitate High Streets, Lazarus-like, after four decades of decline.

There has always been an incentive for companies to have staff work from home, as it saves on office rent, maintenance, insurance, utilities, security and cleaning. For at least a decade, technology has allowed companies to enjoy these advantages; however, they have tended to resist the transition because they have feared employees would not work as conscientiously away from the watchful eyes of management.

Yet, as in many other areas of our lives, the pandemic has stoked the kindling. The government response to Covid-19 forced businesses to shift staff to working from home, and many discovered their companies functioned perfectly well with remotely connected employees. This might well have broken the psychological spell that had discouraged managers from doing so in the past. A recent Survation poll of 2,000 office workers and 500 business leaders found that 53% of staff plan to work in at least a hybrid home-and-office routine after pandemic restrictions are lifted.

It is entirely plausible that this trend will continue, and that ever greater numbers of us will work from home. Businesses that have staff working remotely without significant efficiency losses would have a cost advantage over their competitors, and the cold logic of capitalism would then dictate that everybody follows. The notion that they will care for their workers’ comfort or psychological health is risible.

Wherever they are based for their eight-hour work days, people will want to be able to buy coffee and lunch, conduct business meetings, pick up their dry cleaning, take deliveries, and meet socially with friends and colleagues afterwards. Other businesses will want to congregate where these people are.

A Britain in which foot traffic relocates from city centres and business districts to residential areas would create an environment in which High Streets can be rejuvenated – but only if local authorities have the wit, imagination and fortitude to help them along.

First, councils will need to accept that the old model, which placed High Streets at the centre of shopping life, is finished. Consumers have made plain that they prefer doing the bulk of their shopping in malls, retail parks, hypermarkets and, increasingly, online. Taxing these competitors to oblivion will not save the High Street any more than King Knut whipping the sea turned back the tide.

Instead, councils must return High Streets to their rightful place as centres of community life. They should still contain retail space, but filled with a broader variety of independent shops that differentiate the High Street from malls and retail parks. This must be supplemented by space for churches, mosques and temples, independent pubs and microbreweries, cafes and bakeries, barbers and hairdressers, craftsmen and artisans, menders and fixers, halls for meetings and clubs, and space where farmers can sell their produce directly to consumers and where passion projects can try their luck.

They should also seek to embrace the new economy by providing shared workspace and meeting facilities, premises for grocery ‘dark stores’ offering hyper-quick order fulfilment, and perhaps online retail pickup points (especially with facilities for trying on clothes, one of the main barriers to online clothes shopping).

Offering a smorgasbord of places for people to meet, eat, drink and buy together would make High Streets less vulnerable to future economic developments, draw a critical volume of visitors, and provide neighbourhoods and towns with the beating hearts they need.

Secondly, councils must show fortitude if they are to achieve this golden mix. They cannot capitulate to the temptation to set rents too high or sell space to commercial real estate investment funds. 

William Clouston, the leader of the Social Democratic Party, explains why. “The High Street needs a restart. Rates and rents must fall to give smaller independents a chance to make a living and therefore a contribution. In commercial parlance, this is called a ‘re-gearing’. In normal language, it simply means that the rent on a small High Street shop would be close to that of a market stall. Vitality, viability and creativity would return, empty shops would get tenants, and landlords would have better prospects of collecting rents set at realistic and affordable levels. The only likely losers would be the commercial banks which have for years fed the boom-bust cycle in property.”

Thirdly, councils will have to help High Streets return to their cores, and offer grants to convert High Street peripheries back to residential use. Britain suffers a housing shortage, and as the larger retail chains migrate to malls or online, some of the commercial real estate around the edges of High Streets can be converted into homes.

Computing and online connectivity are, like a glacier or a volcanic outflow, reshaping our economic landscape, creating new industries and businesses and destroying others. Contrary to received wisdom, there is no reason for High Streets to fall into the latter category. By looking back to the future – returning to their positions as community hubs, based on a fresh vision that embraces the new economy and fosters variety and independence – they can enjoy, in the words of Mr. Clouston, the benefits of “vitality, viability and creativity.”

Alternatively, councils can cling to the old model of high rents for large, increasingly moribund retail chains, and consign Britain’s High Streets to become depressing modern equivalents of the old American frontier settlements: their people gone elsewhere, plastic bags blown across them like tumbleweed.


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