Who Killed the High Street ?
Nick Ratcliffe, a local architect (nrarchitecture.co.uk), spoke at the Ullswater Talk at The Royal Hotel, Dockray on Saturday 3rd November 2018. Nick’s earlier career, designing out of town retail developments, exposed him to see first hand what goes in to the process of delivering retail projects, the constraints placed on the sector by government as well as the effects of boom and bust economic swings and changes in consumer behaviour.
a murder mystery
According to the press, the ‘High Street’ is dead. The idyll of the English High Street, with butcher, baker, green grocer, bank is, we are told, no more. It’s been replaced by poundshops, betting shops, charity shops, takeaways and cider-swigging hoodied youths. Many possible culprits have been identified over the years and as the subject makes headlines once again my presentation seeks to lay out who I believe bears responsibility.
The High Street is a term used to cover many things but generally is a euphemism for town centres. Since the world of retail evolves faster than a superbug, it should be noted that this discussion refers to the period up to the beginning of November 2018.
So, who killed the high street? Let’s look at the suspects.
The current favourite villain. Operating from tax-beneficial locations and shipping from cheap warehouses, online retailers are offering consumers ultimate choice from a worldwide marketplace.
For years planning policy allowed unrestricted retail in out of town locations. When government realised the hard being done to town centres, policy changed with the aim of stopping out of town retail but this had the effect of increasing the value of existing parks, strengthening investment in the sector.
Planning policy has failed to move with the times, allowing owners of town centre properties to quickly and easily change the use to accommodate different users. The latest initiative, announced in the Autumn 2018 budget is, perhaps, too little too late.
With finances increasingly squeezed, they have become addicted to retail business rates on an ever-upwards spiral. In response to increasing competition from out of town retail, many councils did their best to make town centres less attractive places to visit by increasing car parking charges, making car access more difficult (without ensuring alternative transport provision). There was a lack of coherent, realistic strategies for town centres which, in many cases needed to acknowledge that the high street idyll of butchers, bakers, green grocers and banks was an unachievable dream.
Shot themselves in the foot; Britain’s first supermarket was opened by the London Cooperative Society in 1948 at Manor Park, north London.
Traditional high street retailers have failed to adapt to rapidly changing trading conditions and a more savvy customer with unprecedented access to information. The media bemoaned the loss of Woolworths and others but the world had moved-on and they had become irrelevant.
Customer-facing retail jobs have been low-paid and so customer service suffered.
The failure to adapt is highlighted by retailers who have succeeded by constantly looking to improve the customer experience, providing shoppers with what they can’t get online - personal contact. Apple, Dyson and even Amazon provide an improved customer experience with better trained knowledgeable staff and all have expansion plans.
Successful retailers have embraced multi-channel retailing seamless linking online with their physical presence.
Built ever-larger out of town retail, accessible only to car owners. During boom times, the rush to develop created a glut of retail space which has lead to secondary and tertiary backwaters. Many of the retail spaces created were so bespoke to the retailers’ needs that, if the retailer departs, it is almost impossible to re-use the space without wholesale redevelopment.
Since the developments were often pre-sold to investment institutions, the property developer had no interest in concepts of sustainability either environmental or commercial.
Pension funds, awash with (now mandatory) monthly contributions need to find somewhere to invest the funds, generating its own market and maybe falsely-inflating values in easily packageable investments in retail parks and supermarkets. It’s in the interests of everyone involved in this industry to keep it going and fund managers, recognised the old adage that if you can’t polish it, you can maybe roll it in glitter and sell it to your mate across the road..
Investment values were supported by requirements of pension funds to find places to investment for everyone’s monthly contributions.
architects - or consultants in general
A whole service sector dedicated to finding ways of circumventing legislation. I spent a lot of time writing or referencing reports saying how sustainable retail developments were, when they weren’t even economically sustainable. We didn’t lie - we had plenty of statistics to do that for us.
you- the consumer
Demanding the convenience of free parking right outside the shopfront; the ‘weekly shop’ of the 80’s needed increasingly-cavernous stores stocking everything. The customers demanded ever-cheaper food to enable increased spending on the latest electricals. In 1970 21% of our income went on food shopping, falling to 10% by 2017. Since incomes have, in real terms, increased the actual change is far more marked.
so - whodunnit ?
Whilst government and media have been keen to pin the blame on any one party - usually the internet, it is, in truth, all of the above who share the blame.
But maybe it was none of the above. The High Street isn’t dead, it’s just changing.
Some High Streets / Town Centres will have to accept that they will no longer be the retail destination that they once were. Some shops will be converted back into houses and some into businesses. And once there are people living and working on the high street, they’re going to need somewhere to shop aren’t they? So the economic cycle continues.
The Ullswater Breakfast Talk, at The Royal Hotel, Dockray, takes place on the first Saturday of each month starting at 8am. A small donation to the nominated charity of the speaker is welcome. The Royal provides a breakfast bite. Future topics for the Breakfast Talk can be found on the Events and Calendar sections of this website. All welcome.