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Tue, 29 September 2020

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Our high streets and town centres need a new lease of life

Our high streets and town centres need a new lease of life

Credit: PA Images

3 min read

Tomorrow’s high street won’t be the same as it is today. What will it look like instead?

Even before coronavirus, traditional high streets were struggling. A double-whammy of online shopping and out-of-town retail malls have been making life progressively harder every year.

If you view shopping as a chore to be dealt with as quickly and simply as possible, the internet is always open and only a click away.

There’s no need to hunt for parking spaces, trudge round different shops looking for whatever it is you’re after, and then lug it back to the car wondering whether you could have got it a bit cheaper at another shop.

And if you enjoy shopping as a great way to spend time browsing new things with your friends, then out-of-town malls are purpose-built palaces of fun. There’s acres of free parking, you’re always warm and dry, and everything’s right there. What’s to dislike?

Well, nothing, but that’s the problem, because town centres everywhere are getting hollowed out by all this competition.

Empty, boarded-up shop-fronts are spreading like blackened teeth in a previously-perfect smile, and thriving, bustling high streets are getting quieter every year. The effects on local economies, and on the neighbourhoods that depend on them, can be profound.

It's not all gloom of course: some enterprising local stores are bucking the trend with quirky products, friendly service and dedicated, loyal customers. But there are only so many artisanal-this or specialist-that shops which most areas can support, particularly if the local neighbourhood isn’t terribly well off. And the numbers of jobs they create aren’t a patch on a thriving M&S or Primark either.

So what’s to be done? It’s clear that tomorrow’s high street won’t be the same as today’s, so what will it look like instead?

Historians think the past may have lessons for our future, because our familiar high street isn’t terribly old anyway. 80 years ago they had much more variety than today’s retail-only prairie monocultures.

You’d have found neighbourhood shops, of course, but also workshops with families and workers living alongside or above them, as well as places to eat and drink. That meant they had a much broader range of reasons for people to visit, and that they were ‘alive after five’ when retailers had shut up shop for the day.

If they’re right, it will mean profound changes. Local Councils will have to change zoning laws so people can live where they currently shop, and to treat high streets like theatres, with attractive architecture to give a distinct and interesting local character.

The new proposal for allowing people to build up to 4 stories without planning permission, providing they follow a local style set by their Council to match the best of what’s already there, matches my longstanding campaign to Build Up Not Out and ought to deliver what’s needed here. But Councils will need to go further; the new architecture will only provide a stage set for lively, interesting public spaces that entertain and surprise people.

Plus Councils may have to roof some high streets over, to keep us dry while we’re there. And find answers to all that free parking in the out of town malls too.

So it won’t be easy, but it will be impossible to dodge or avoid the changes either. And once it’s done, our high streets and town centres will have a new lease of life.

Or, since they’re going to become like theatres, a second act now the first is ending. Curtain up...

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