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Do we save the high streets?

Summary:
The traditional High Street with its row of small shops was already in decline before the pandemic and its associated lockdowns came to put more of its businesses in jeopardy. Changing demographics and changing lifestyles had led to changed behaviour. More women went out to work and no longer had the time to shop locally each day. Visits to the out of town supermarkets, partly made possible by higher car ownership, led the big shopping trip to replace the many smaller ones. The changing face of High Streets was evident four or more decades ago. As businesses closed, charity shops often replaced them, having the advantage of lower business rates, sometimes with up to 80 percent discount on what commercial premises would incur. After the wave of charity shops the High Street businesses that

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The traditional High Street with its row of small shops was already in decline before the pandemic and its associated lockdowns came to put more of its businesses in jeopardy. Changing demographics and changing lifestyles had led to changed behaviour. More women went out to work and no longer had the time to shop locally each day. Visits to the out of town supermarkets, partly made possible by higher car ownership, led the big shopping trip to replace the many smaller ones.

The changing face of High Streets was evident four or more decades ago. As businesses closed, charity shops often replaced them, having the advantage of lower business rates, sometimes with up to 80 percent discount on what commercial premises would incur. After the wave of charity shops the High Street businesses that closed tended to be replaced more recently by the coffee shops that proliferated everywhere. And after the coffee shops it was the turn of the sandwich shops.

None of these were the traditional small shops that sold things, the butchers, ironmongers, bakers and haberdashers. But their replacements still produced the footfall of visitors that businesses depended on, and therefore kept the High Streets going as local centres. The pandemic has accelerated the change, with locked down shoppers buying in record amounts online, and with home delivery replacing the shopping trip. Working from home means much lower footfall in city centre offices, and therefore fewer customers for shops, cafés and sandwich bars.

Now most High Streets feature boarded up windows and doors, and many will not reopen. According to the Centre for Retail Research there were around 50,000 fewer shops on our High Streets than were there just over a decade before the pandemic. There will be many fewer still after it has passed. Recent losses have included Debenhams, Topshop, BHS, the Edinburgh Woolen Mill, and many other familiar household names. With them have gone most of their jobs. And as fewer people come to the High Street, it can accelerate the cycle of decline. The High Street for some is no longer a pleasant place to visit, especially after dark.

People ask the question “Can the High Street be saved?” And there are several organizations and initiatives attempting to do that. It seems unlikely, however, that High Streets will be remade to suit the preferences of a group of planners, and perhaps more likely that creative market decisions will interact to produce an outcome that cannot be predicted in advance. Even so, we can speculate on what might happen.

For example, housing is in short supply, and High Streets are places where people might want to live, close to their work. The space above High Street premises might be more extensively used to create flats for more urban dwelling. And more premises might move away from competing with online sales and home deliveries, and adapt to services less easy to perform online, services such as beauty parlours, nail salons and yoga classes.

In some places green spaces are replacing car parks, and the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius might provide an example. The city centre is being transformed into an open-air café where hundreds of bars and restaurants are setting up in plazas, squares and streets. It is possible that the High Streets of the future might become communal open spaces with flowers, fountains and sculptures, with free wifi and street food and coffee stands. They might become places where people will meet, rather than shop.

The important thing is to facilitate the flexibility that will enable High Streets to adapt to changing habits and lifestyles, rather than trying to preserve them unchanged, like insects preserved in the amber of their past.

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