High Noon for the High Street

Posted On: 
26th April 2019

As the retail landscape shifts, change must be embraced in order to survive. Dods Monitoring's Andy Frain explains.

The Current Challenges

The British High Street has been accused of circling the plughole of decline for decades. Over the years a myriad of potential foes to traditional town centres have been heralded, from out-of-town shopping centres to discount retailers.

The High Street has, so far, proven resilient to these challenges but recent events have felt like a genuine shifting of the traditional tectonic plates. The last twelve months have seen established high street stalwarts like House of Fraser and HMV facing existential threats and household names like Toys “R” Us closing their doors for good. Nor is it just retailers that are fleeing the high street. Figures compiled by the consumer charity Which? show that the UK has lost nearly two-thirds of its bank and building society branches over the past 30 years, with a sharp increase during the 2010’s.

Assessing the Damage

The causes of this decline are widespread, with online shopping and crippling business rates some of the most mentioned topics in Parliament.

The effects, however, are stark. There are obvious concerns about job losses, with around 70,000 jobs lost in the retail industry in 2018, but many have been keen to accentuate other, less apparent, effects. At a CWU Parliamentary event in March on the future of Post Offices, Labour’s Gill Furniss spoke about the importance of financial inclusivity. She noted the lack of options readily available to those without online banking, with rural areas in particular suffering from bank branch closures and becoming increasingly reliant on a stretched Post Office.

Labour have voiced their concern that as retailers and banks flee the high street, older people are finding their opportunities for social engagement limited further and further with an associated effect on mental health. Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell said in April “Poor access to local bank branches hurts our town centres and local communities, particularly affecting elderly and more vulnerable customers, as well as damaging the ability of local small businesses to invest.“

The Government too is aware of the issue. Leader of the House Andrea Leadsom has been a vocal supporter of the town centre’s ability to combat loneliness and isolation and at the launch of the Government’s “Open Doors Scheme”, Communities Secretary James Brokenshire emphasised the importance of high streets to the wellbeing of communities.

Challenging the Narrative of Decline

However, not everyone is pessimistic about these changes. Behind the dramatic headlines some optimists see an industry in transformation, as retail re-invents itself in a less traditional manner. Chief advocate of this belief is the Chair of the John Lewis Partnership, Charlie Mayfield, who spoke on the topic at the Resolution Foundation. Mayfield accepts that change is undeniably occurring, but claims that it is “structural, not cyclical”.

In order to thrive, Mayfield puts the focus on retailers themselves, encouraging them to focus on innovation - “saving the high street can’t just mean retaining what we already have, it has to embrace change”. People and staff are key to this process, and Mayfield called for a culture of lifelong learning, both in education and in employment, to help staff to adapt and drive innovation. In their report “High Streets 2030”, the Select Committee for Housing, Communities and Local Government agreed with Mayfield that the High Street is far from beyond saving but pushed instead for more leadership from local and central Government.

Perhaps surprisingly, the report does actually offer some detail as to what form this may take, focusing chiefly on a shift from retail focused activities to new uses and purposes. To an extent, this is already underway - the aforementioned Open Doors Scheme is a project aimed to encourage landlords to turn their empty shops into “community hubs” with activities such as local interest groups, libraries and children’s clubs incentivised to utilise dormant spaces. In addition, proposals to solve the housing crisis have noted that empty retail space on the high street offers a prime opportunity for new central housing, which would offer the additional bonus of increasing footfall in town centres.

Labour’s proposal for a “Post Bank” ties into this concept, with the role of the Post Office to be expanded to provide a full range of financial servicecand “uniting important banking, business and community services under one roof”. In March, the Government launched the dubiously named “Pub is the Hub” scheme, designed to help support struggling rural pubs diversify their offer to patrons. Additional services delivered under the scheme include Post Office facilities, shops and libraries.

A Shift of Focus

These schemes are illustrative of what a future high street may look like – multi-functional and dynamic, with spaces not being limited to one narrow use. The HCLG Committee report emphasised the idea of the high street as an experience, rather than as a necessity and this diversity must be supported further in future. This will require a shift from the retail focused activities of high streets and town centres today to new uses and purposes which foster greater social interaction, community spirit and local identity and characteristics. Government is already acting in this area, but with an ever-spiralling number of names disappearing from town centres it is clear that any action must be taken urgently in order to avoid a cycle of decline.

Andy Frain is a Dods Monitoring Political Consultant for Business and Culture. To download recommended articles and a look ahead of key events and discussions, click here.