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Bringing life back to our High Streets
This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first published in Choice magazine, 2013
It's no news that it's bad times at the moment for Britain 's High Streets. Bill Grimsey, the former chief executive of the (defunct) DIY chain Focus, recently went so far as to say that the traditional High Street was doomed: “as good as dead already,” he said. Government support to try to improve things was simply money wasted, he implied.
But not everyone is prepared to accept such a pessimistic assessment. Up and down the country, initiatives are underway to try to get new life into the heart of our towns and cities. Creative, innovative ideas are being tried out. Whatever the odds, some people are refusing to let our High Streets go.
Official support, from both central and local government, is clearly needed but the message is clear: it's local people who are leading the fightback. If we want to prove the nay-sayers wrong, it seems that we'll have to get stuck in and do things ourselves.
So what's the problem?
Britain 's retailers have been hit by the recession, of course. Well-known chains, among them Blacks Leisure, Clinton Cards, Peacocks and JJB Sports, have gone under. Recent data found that on average twenty shops a day shut in the first six months of last year . The proportion of shops in Britain lying empty has been rising (up to over 14%), and in Scotland and Wales it's worse, at over 16% and 18% respectively. England 's North West is even more affected, with more than one shop in five empty.
It's not just the recession, however. The traditional High Street has been affected by the rise of out-of-town shopping malls and edge-of-town supermarket developments. Almost too late, the damage which these can cause to community life is beginning to be realised.
Increasingly, too, shoppers aren't even going to the shops: they are buying the goods they want online. When e-commerce began more than ten years ago, it was initially items such as books and toys which were bought via the web. But now internet shopping has spread to many other retail items, including domestic appliances and clothes. Amazon's massive warehouse near Milton Keynes is crammed full of items which, only a short time ago, would have been on sale in our local shops.
And then there's the problem of property ownership. Many shopping centres (especially those 1960s and 1970s indoor centres which once seemed so bright and modern) are owned by property companies or private equity firms. Land values have plummeted in recent years, and there's no incentive for these companies to invest in their properties or to sell on to others who might have plans to improve them. In Dunstable, for example, plans to regenerate the town centre have suffered from the reluctance of the company owning the once-vibrant Quadrant Centre to get involved. Even worse, Bradford city centre has had a hole in its heart for almost a decade: a large part of the central shopping area has been demolished, only for the developer Westfield to postpone their plans to rebuild. It was only late last year  that a new consortium brought forward plans which might see the development moving forward.
For economists, this is what is known as cost externalisation: companies don't need to take responsibility for the problems which come from having derelict or empty properties in the heart of our public areas. Instead, we all have to pay for the consequences.
Oh, Mary Portas, what can I do?
Mary Portas, the fashion retailer (and TV's Mary Queen of Shops), has taken on the role of a figurehead in the battle to revive the High Street. Her Portas Review, commissioned by the government and published in the Autumn of 2011, made a set of 28 recommendations, some more ambitious and controversial than others.
For example, the government has not yet been persuaded to change the planning rules to make it much more difficult for new out-of-town developments to get the go ahead. Portas argued that the National Planning Policy Framework should have an explicit presumption in favour of town centre developments and that any new out-of-town developments should require ministerial sign off.
Other recommendations have, however, been accepted. Portas suggested the idea, for example, of a small number of ‘High Street Pilots' around England which could try out some of the ideas for regeneration which she suggested. A first group of twelve pilot towns (Bedford, Croydon, Dartford , Bedminster. Liskeard, Margate . Market Rasen, Nelson, Newbiggin by the Sea, Stockport, Stockton and Wolverhampton ) were established a year ago, and another fifteen towns joined the pilots in July last year. These were Ashford, Berwick, Braintree , Hatfield, Leamington, Loughborough, Lowestoft, Morecambe, Rotherham and Tiverton, as well as areas in London , Liverpool and Brighton .
Critics of the scheme say that the government funding being made available for the pilot towns is too modest, and that almost 400 towns which wanted to join the scheme were unsuccessful. Certainly, by itsel, government money will probably achieve little.
One Portas idea, however, can be implemented by any town, whether or not they are one of the pilots. This is her suggestion for ‘Town Teams', what she describes as visionary, strategic and strong groups which oversee the management of their central shopping areas. As she puts it, “It's up to local areas to decide what works for them, but a Town Team could include key landlords, large and small shopkeepers, council representatives with specific knowledge of planning and development, the mayor or MP, other local business and service providers, and local residents”. Elsewhere she stresses the need for ordinary people to get involved: “Charismatic, local people with a vested interest in protecting their town centres and revitalising their communities will, if empowered to do so, inevitably lead the charge for change”.
In fact, the idea of the ‘town team' is something which was already successfully being adopted by many of Britain 's market towns several years before Mary Portas got to work. The past ten years have seen strong community-led initiatives, sometimes helped by town and parish councils, sometimes spearheaded by local voluntary sector organisations. The UK-wide organisation which links many of these initiatives is Action for Market Towns (AMT, towns.org.uk), which arranges an annual Convention (held most recently in Kendal last October) and regional seminars and workshops. Action for Market Towns has been particularly focusing on helping create successful Town Teams.
Action for Market Towns helped influence Mary Portas's own vision for the High Street. Its manifesto Twenty-First Century Town Centres calls for “multifunctional social centres”, which are about more than just shopping. “They are about enjoyment, creativity, learning, socialising, culture, health and wellbeing and democratic engagement”. AMT says that every town centre needs more than just planning and management: “
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