The decline and fall of the High Street
And how Walulel can help save it!
Oxford Street in early December 2020 (Andy Rain/EPA)
As non-essential stores reopen in Tier 1 and 2 regions and customers begin to return to their local shopping hubs, the country’s high streets have experienced what may seem like a temporary resurgence. Though while the photographs heading up media articles from last weekend may shine an optimistic light on the future of our high streets as presents are bought in time for Christmas – indeed the numbers are up, in some places more than 150%, on the last weekend – the recent rush of shoppers comes during a time of precarity for huge numbers of retailers big and small.
(It also raises concerns about the lack of social distancing being implemented on busy high streets and in stores, which may create a more damaging effect in the long term, but this will not be covered in this article.)
This return to the shops immediately follows the collapse of well-known chains Debenhams, Topshop and Dorothy Perkins (the latter two owned by the failing Arcadia Group), and the slashing of tens of thousands of jobs by those struggling in the wake of the pandemic. 11,000 outlets closed their doors between January and August, and calculations suggest that despite the recent positive images, the numbers of those out over last weekend were down 38% on this time last year.
But according to many experts Covid-19 is not entirely to blame and has only sped up a decline and fall that was already well on its way. A report commissioned by the former boss of the high street giants Iceland and Wickes found that in each of the previous five years chains had shut more of their sites than they’d opened, and a number of household names such as Woolworths and House of Fraser entered administration over the last couple of decades. The British Retail Consortium themselves reported that 2019 was the worst year the retail industry has ever seen. 2020 is obviously looking far worse.
Attitudes towards the high street are clearly changing, and for that reason we believe it useful to delve into how they ended up in this position, as well as discuss the benefits of understanding the spatial data that surrounds the retail and leisure sites that occupy our main shopping streets. Without this information it is impossible for retail and leisure hubs to move forward without repeating the mistakes of the past.
The locational information that Walulel has gathered, combined with other contextual information gleaned from research and discussions with policy and decisionmakers, can provide us with a detailed grasp of how we can reimagine the possibilities for these institutions in the years to come, and ensure that the causes rather than just the symptoms of this decline are tackled in a people-focussed manner.
A bustling Kilburn High Street during the 1950s (Pinterest)
Town centres arrived in this sticky situation as a result of policy changes that arose following the Second World War, before which they were home to an organic amalgamation of local conveniences built pretty much as and when the need arose amongst the community. These included clubs, churches, factories, offices, houses and shops. This all changed when alterations in development legislation enabled large companies to redevelop town centres with the oversight of local authorities, which were often starved of the resources to fund it themselves.
The post-war consumer boom meant that retail became the most profitable of options for these new private developers and as such town centres became a focal point for shops and department stores that stacked mass produced goods high and sold them cheap. Retail space ballooned, and the realisation that a prime spot on the high street meant big business caused local land prices to skyrocket and stores were willing to put up with high taxation from the authorities for a good location. The inflated land prices and taxes were great for the local governments, but smaller businesses and even institutions like churches and schools struggled to compete with the influx, and were moved or closed altogether to accommodate more store space.
It continued this way for a long time, with smaller shops losing out and disappearing as business rates drove (and continue to drive) them out, but high street chains remained popular, building brand recognition and trust, and ensuring jobs for millions. Buoyed by this success, private developers began building out of town shopping centres and encouraging brands to vie (and pay big money) for space in these new-fangled department stores.
But this optimism wasn’t to last, and many businesses were crushed by the oversaturation of brands in the new centres. Those who couldn’t adapt – through lower prices or technological innovation – fell by the wayside. Not long after another death-knell was struck with the advent of online shopping. This came into its own alongside the 2008 financial crash, during which time rents and business rates went through the roof, meaning maintaining a physical store was becoming an almost impossible job. Now, alongside the onset of Covid-19 this has only increased, with Amazon making a revenue of $96.15bn between July and October alone!
Closed shops along Lordship Lane during the Covid-19 pandemic (Wikimedia Commons)
It’s no surprise high street stores are struggling then, and it is true that many cannot be saved. But is there any way that high streets themselves can adapt and flourish as we look towards the future?
For some, just being able to enter a physical store is reason enough to return to the high street week in week out. It’s an experience that takes you out of your home and allows you to effectively try before you buy.
Because of the pandemic, shops have been allowed more flexibility, and been granted the ability to open 24 hours a day. This will enable shoppers to avoid rush hours both in the shops and on transport networks and not have to worry about visiting after work, ultimately drawing more footfall to the town centre at all times of the day. A boon for the night-time shoppers and stores, but perhaps not for those covering the late shifts.
But as we’ve seen, just having the spaces there and open is not enough to save the high street, and the build it they will come attitude is no longer a viable plan for local authorities, despite the high business rates being charged. As many now acknowledge, the high street as we know it is a thing of the past. The days of segregated shops-only roads or centres that can attract enough people from far and wide to step into its decorated storefronts for all their retail needs are over. So what will go in their place?
Well, the government’s High Streets Task Force have proven that ‘multifunctional’ towns have seen the smallest drop-off in custom over the course of the pandemic and have remained most resilient in the face of the long decline. These are the places which offer something for everyone, beyond just retail space; that have understood the needs and desires of locals and given them a reason to return for pursuits other than just shopping. This is important particularly while many prefer to stay local during the pandemic.
Clearly then it is no longer just the shops themselves that bring people to an area, but that’s not to say that we should get rid of them all together. Rather they must exist within a thriving ecosystem that supports the things around them. Businesses, therefore, must work alongside other amenities to draw custom.
If those amenities do not exist, then it is the role of local decisionmakers, in combination with the community, to introduce or transform them to help bring in the shoppers. Does an area need more or less space for individual stores? Is it lacking in green space for example, and if not are there businesses that cater to those who will be utilising such an amenity?
Not only can our data answer these questions, it can identify such things as concentrations of certain shop types or businesses, which can help prospective or current shop owners determine where they need to be or avoid in order to attract enough customers. We are also able to map where the densest retail areas are and see where, if they wish to populate the neighbourhood with potential customers – or just replace former retail space with a much-needed social good – housing should be built.
Or vice versa, we can understand which densely populated areas are least serviced by streets providing convenient shopping and leisure space or the means of accessing it, and work to locate such businesses accordingly. We can also use demographic data to identify areas whose population may not be adequately serviced by the options on offer, as well as predict how such a population may change over the coming years.
We can therefore aid local decisionmakers in recognising not only what businesses they need to encourage – whether it be family- or nightlife-focussed, pet- or child-focussed, car- or bicycle-focussed – to appeal to current or prospective residents, but also in perceiving how the lived environment around these stores can affect the public’s response and attraction to them.
For example, bike lanes, roads easily accessible for pedestrians, or good public transport links can all help improve trade. As our data supports, those who cycle, walk or take public transport are far more likely to stop to enter a local shop than someone in a car. With respect to car traffic, neighbourhoods could implement pedestrianisation policies that would allow businesses like cafes and bars to provide outside seating and would let pedestrians travel in an environment that was not only less polluted but also enabled easy social distancing and an avoidance of enclosed space. With leisure provision dwindling even before the pandemic, we can even pinpoint which high streets would benefit from additional bars or restaurants in general.
Our information can provide this and much more, but at the end of the day what the data that we have gathered ultimately shows us is what a town centre actually is – a web of interconnected urban aspects that all contribute to a whole. A high street that understands the times can support a huge number of urban amenities, as long as the infrastructure for these amenities is developed by local policymakers to support the high street.
Implementing such change is not a simple undertaking for local authorities considering the huge reduction in their funding over the past few years, but with the help of Walulel these developments can be planned as efficiently as possible.
Outdoor seating on a road in Soho during the Covid-19 pandemic (London Eater)
As with almost every aspect of our lives, the pandemic has forced us to change the way we approach the high street and the physical stores that populate them. But like the many other facets, these changes have allowed cities an opportunity to begin to devise new ways of rebuilding going forward. It is clear that the high street as we know it has been on the way out for decades, and Covid-19 has brought this fact into sharp focus with the degree to which it has sped up the process.
The only way that retail big and small can survive and help maintain the vibrancy of our local urban centres is if decisionmakers adapt to the new challenges that are becoming starker by the day. But these challenges can only be overcome by viewing neighbourhoods as ecologies, made up of many aspects that exist alongside and influence one another, but all of which must respond to the spatial needs of local communities. WaInsight provides the information to help local authorities understand these needs and implement the changes necessary to keep cities the exciting spaces of opportunity and experience for all that they should be.
Some may see this downturn as an inevitable result of the move towards e-commerce and argue that perhaps the high street isn’t worth saving as we move towards an even more online future. Yet it is important to remember that they offer much more than the buying of things. High streets provide many with a sense of place and community. The local businesses with staff who recognise regulars; the veteran shop whose homespun quality many have enjoyed for decades; the eateries and pubs which act as sites of sociability particularly after almost a year of pandemic isolation. These, in combination with quality homes and local amenities, are the reasons people stay anchored to an area and we should strive to preserve them.