Monday, August 01, 2011

The end of the suburban high street?

The traditional high street is as much a British institution as the Sunday roast.  Yet like its culinary counterpart, it is one that is in decline.

A lot has been made about the impact of out of town shopping and the growth of the big supermarkets.   In the early 1990s around three quarters of all retail spend took place on the high street; by 2010, this had dropped to under 50%.  With the convenience of internet shopping this is likely to drop further to just 40% by 2014.  Local councils haven’t helped either by restricting cars or increasing the cost of car parking.

Last week, the Labour Party published a four point plan to ‘save Britain’s high streets’.  It follows the Coalition Government’s appointment of celebrity retail queen, Mary Portas, to review the same issue.  We will have to wait for the Portas review, but Labour’s four point plan of more regulatory powers for councils and a temporary VAT cut won’t prevent the inevitable.

For what we are witnessing is a fundamental shift in personal lifestyles that is transforming the retail business environment.   The typical national retailer is cutting its standard number of stores from 220 plus to less that ninety with many moving from the high street to out of town.

And it’s not just retail.  Of the 130 commercial office locations in London identified by the GLA, virtually none outside the well-established locations of central London have experienced any new office investment in the past twenty years. 

Not only are we are all travelling to out of town centres to do our shopping; we are not working in our surburban centres either.  We are just commuting through them by train or car, possibly picking up a newspaper, coffee or a microwave meal on route.

We need to redefine our town centres and make them relevant again.  The standard design of the long high street where people wonder down one side and come back the other seems to belong to a bygone age.  We don’t have the time to do that anymore. 

It’s not all gloom.  Some centres have established themselves as niche places attracting people for their cultural or leisure offer.   Peckham library, for example, has become a focal point and a genuine community hub attracting a wider offer and there are examples elsewhere of innovative traders coming together to host farmers’ markets and other events.  

As BCSC president Richard Akers said last week, “The issue is that high streets have to become more relevant to consumers.  Politicians don’t really address that point.”  The question is will Mary Portas?

What are your thoughts?  Do you think that the traditional high street is in terminal decline or is its outlook more favourable?  Do we need policies to support the high street or its decline some sort of inevitability?  And who are the best people to reinvent it – the public policy makers or community entrepreneurs?

Wyn Evans is Founding Director of Forty Shillings.