“High streets are the heart of towns and communities. They have been for centuries. People are passionate about high streets.” Mary Portas (2011)
As the quote from Mary Portas above suggests the British high street is something cherished by communities around the country. Built up over hundreds of years in towns and cities the country over they are a quintessentially British thing. Yet despite this fondness high streets have struggled to keep pace with the rapidly evolving economy of the 21st Century. They have been withered away by the enormous growth in online shopping and the near omnipresent out-of-town retail developments which are more accessible and free of many of the physical constraints of town centres. This is demonstrated through government statistics which show a clear decline in high street sales since the turn of the millennium.
In an effort to reverse this decline Mary Portas was commissioned by the UK Government to conduct an independent review into the state of the UK high streets and town centres in 2011. She concluded that high streets were at crisis point and that significant interventions were needed. She made a series of recommendations for interventions including: the development of dedicated teams to strategically manage town centres; the deregulation of of high streets to free up red tape; the requirement for out of town developments to have secretarial sign off and the use of CPOs and business rate concessions by Local Authorities.
Since Portas’ review there have been a series of initiatives and research activities from the government, planning professionals and academics. One of the most recent is from the Association for Public Excellence (2014) which explores the role of Local Authority assets in town centre regeneration. The report suggests that Local Authorities contain a diverse range of assets including theatres, cinemas, airports, stadia and schools which combined are worth more than £250bn.
“We must move on from simplicities, where town centres are perceived as being all about retail. The way to solve the problems of our high streets and our town centres, is to nurture and respect all of social, public, and commercial elements. This report shows that local authorities are key drivers, and that the assets they own are vital as economic, social, environmental and cultural components of town centres.” Neil McInroy, Chief Executive of CLES.
The report demonstrates that Local Authority assets have the potential to support development across economic, social and environmental development using case studies from Ballymena, West Dunbartonshire, Southampton and Neath. The Local Authorities in these areas have been able to use their asset base to drive investment, create jobs and provide cultural venues and heritage attractions.
Despite this national policy has, according to the report, placed an emphasis on retail development encouraging the disposal of council assets. This over reliance on retail-led regeneration led to high streets having an over abundance of recession proof betting shops, pawnbrokers, pay day loan shops and pound shops. If the economic recovery we now find ourselves in is to revitalise high streets to become more varied public spaces then a mixture of public and private investment maybe needed.
Articles referred to in this blog (please note you must be a member to view them):
- The role and value of local authority assets in town centres
- Creating the will to change (town centre regeneration)
- The changing face of the high street: decline and revival – a review of retail and town centre issues in historic areas
- Investing in the high street: town centre investment management and its role in delivering change