15th January 2024
Year after year the media laments the decline of our high streets. To change this narrative, local authorities need to ditch a model that’s running out of road, argues Matt Colledge FIPM
This article relates to IPM's latest report, 'Making the most of High Street Investment'
For some time now, the end of the year seems to trigger virtually the same reports. Black Friday begins earlier, Christmas sales are weak and more casualties are predicted in the New Year.
Meanwhile, Amazon parcels carry on zooming across the land, fulfilment centres are springing up everywhere and online sales continue to grow. For many of us working to help our high streets adapt to change, this has become a depressing Groundhog Day.
How then do we break this cycle and develop a different ney year narrative for our high streets?
Investment to animate high streets
Arguably the most important clue to solving this problem is a closer examination of the role of local authorities and high streets. In recent years this has become a relationship heavily reliant on competing for levelling up pots of cash to deliver large capital projects. While the day to day struggle for many high street businesses is getting harder and harder, regeneration bosses are betting on long-term developments such as a new bus terminus, train station or market hall to kickstart a high street revival.
These developments are undoubtedly important – and much needed – but on their own they are not enough to transform the fortunes of struggling high streets. Many will take years to come to fruition and they cannot hide the fact that day-to-day investment to animate high streets, create a more welcoming environment and build confidence in town centres is being neglected. There are no silver bullets to solve all our high street ills. In an age of rapid change and technological disruption, the job of turnaround requires constant attention, not a one off ribbon-cutting ceremony.
Businesses have been quick to notice this. The boss of one of Britain’s biggest beauty retailers, Lush, recently told The Times that high streets needed to be “more vibrant” to encourage new business investment.
“Someone has to have the balls to sort out councils — which are all going bust and haven’t got a penny to spare — so that they’re not so reliant on car parking and business rates,” he argued. “Their revenue from that is dropping all the time and it’s not working. We have silent high streets.”
Coping in a time of financial stress
The problem with this analysis from Lush's boss is that the reality of the UK’s straitened public finances means local government is unlikely to be the recipient of government largesse any time soon.
That’s why we need a recognition across the business community and among the wider public that councils cannot cope with the changing needs of high streets on their own.
They need support and what we’ve observed across many towns through the work of the High Streets Task Force is that towns that are bucking the trend are those that are recognising this and seeking to expand high street leadership capacity through new vehicles.
Expanding local leadership
Our new report shows how this is manifesting itself in the form of partnerships between local government and a range of new actors. Business Improvement Districts, Traders Forums, Community Interest Companies, Community Groups, Business Groups and Crime Partnerships are just some of the players taking on a bigger role in shaping high streets of the future.
These groups are able to bid for other pots of money, raise funds themselves and, with some additional funding from councils, can often deliver more, particularly around the delivery of events and activities to stimulate the high street than resource-stretched local authorities that simply don’t have the staff.
I’ve seen a number of these groups emerge from passionate figures in the business and voluntary sector communities who simply want to roll up their sleeves and make their high streets safer, more vibrant and welcoming spaces.
At the moment, the numbers are still relatively small. Forty five per cent of the towns visited by the High Streets Task Force over the last four years had no cross sector partnership in place. But they are on the increase and fresh partnerships are being minted all the time.
Events in your town
As well as helping Councils with the day-to-day work of delivering improved safety, better communication and information sharing, they are also developing events programmes to drive footfall and working with landlords to support start-ups and fill empty shops.
And it’s a model where everyone has a role. In one town I saw the local manager of a major chain store knocking on doors, working with landlords to get better deals for start-ups and trying to help the business community. It’s also laying the foundations for an events calendar that includes food markets, festivals, carnivals, half marathons, open air cinema, urban gardening, lantern parades, concerts and street food nights among others.
“If I am to talk about some of these things with highways, licencing or economic development departments, we are always told it’s not a priority,” one Council officer told us. “That’s why we had no choice but to start building wider partnerships to build leadership capacity and get extra resources.”
If others follow this nascent model we may well soon start to revive animal spirits and see the kind of vibrant high streets that the boss of Lush is calling for. And at a time when partnerships from Aberdeen to Westminster are offering free rent to attract exciting new businesses, we may also start to see a more experimental, creative and bigger high street emerge.
“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody,” Jane Jacobs, the acclaimed US-Canadian journalist and urbanist, once famously argued. “Only because,” she added, “and only when, they are created by everybody.”
It’s an adage we wholly agree with. And it’s time it’s applied to high streets everywhere.