History repeats itself when it comes to saving the high street

When we refitted an office where I worked as a development surveyor, I managed to rescue a set of planning journals from the skip. One of them made intriguing reading. According to the Journal of Planning and Property of Law 1965, the dilemma of how to protect smaller traders from the impact of large retail developments was a cause for concern for local planning authorities even half a century ago. The book describes the building of shopping centres as “the most hazardous” issue for local authorities. In contrast, the building of residential areas is “a safe bet”.

Though the journal explores the economic factors involved in building a new shopping area, in those days a detailed technical assessment was not possible. All you could expect was a much more limited assessment, often using research by the government rather than the plethora of private sector experts we now have.

However, even that limited assessment in 1965, in trying to tackle the future of the traditional town centre, was perhaps better than the response today from policy-makers. Few now seem to have a grip on how the high street will survive and are prepared to plan in the long term. Fifty years ago, the Ministry of Housing and Local Government was apparently fully aware that a new shopping area where building began in 1965 would not be delivered until five years later and had to satisfy the needs of the population up to 1981. That may seem like some pretty long-term forecasting, but that is the purpose of planning.

Various ideas have been put forward to revitalise the High Street over the years, all with mixed results. The brakes were applied to out-of-town shopping centres through the ‘town centre first’ policy. We have also tried pedestrianising town centres and introducing improved landscaping and signage.

But the retail landscape continues to change. Recently, we have witnessed large supermarkets pulling out of new large-scale developments in favour of smaller convenience stores – apparently a preference of the modern customer that is too busy to do large, weekly shopping trips. However, it is the growth of online retail that is the really big unknown for high streets. The logistics of getting goods from the retailer to the consumer is now bypassing the middle man with a humble shop front. Today’s shop front is the screen on your desk or in your pocket.

In response to online shopping, could the high street and the business model behind it benefit from a redesign? Could the high street become a series of larger, specialised showrooms and mini distribution hubs that shoppers can browse? The logistics of delivering food to local customers is not that different to delivering products purchased online. Yet there is no coordinated service and little encouragement for local courier firms to serve high street traders by distributing goods in this way. There is not enough provision for goods to come in and out, such as adequate parking spaces.

If planning is about preparing for the future, then is it time to gather the retailers large and small, logistic companies and key takeaway brands to debate how high streets should be laid out in response to shoppers’ future needs? The retail use classes A1 to A5 do not serve the modern retailer’s needs, with the decline of traditional shops (A1), banks and building societies (A2) and pubs (A4). The vacuum is not necessarily best filled by takeaways or charity shops. As click and collect grows, can the high street serve as a combination of showrooms and distribution hubs? At the moment, there is not a use class that covers local collection hubs. Perhaps a little more imagination is needed with regard to place-making, business modelling and use classes orders if the British high street is to survive.

Finally, let’s go back to the journal from 1965 which very presciently looks at how prime shopping areas should act to prevent their decline. It concludes: “So many of these shopping  streets and so-called precincts look like barrack rooms or perhaps quartermaster’s stores, barren of imagination and variety. The traditional high street was not built by the multiples and the supermarkets, but by the independent traders of our country, who not only sold goods over the counter but took an active part in the life of town and community.”

The chief competition to the traditional high street at that time was the new shopping centre. In recent decades, the main threat has come from the out-of-town retail park and the large supermarkets; now it is online shopping. But in terms of the high street having to plan to survive, it appears that history is repeating itself.

-        Guy Middleton is a chartered surveyor and environmental engineer who owns and runs SW1Surveyors.com in London and China-based architectural visualisation firm H4 Group.com.

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