The High Street is struggling and it is clear that generations of customers are no longer available to those large stores which have been in place for decades and the convenience, on-demand approach of on-line shopping has had a significant impact on the trading patterns across the world.
The failure of companies such as British Homes Stores, coupled with store closures announced by Marks & Spencer, Debenhams and others, demonstrates that larger retailers can no longer be relied on to anchor the traditional High Street. The High Street needs to offer more than shopping opportunities and employment plus residential uses will be essential to underpinning activity in these central areas in the future.
The changing nature of the town centre environment may not ultimately be suitable for all retail. The provision of bars, restaurants and leisure facilities can result in an area which has high footfall but limited spend and there can be an entirely different atmosphere through the day and night. Artisan units, event space and pop up units in empty shops are other ways in which to attract people to the high street. A widening offer for leisure and hospitality needs to be provided and the increase in footfall which arises from a seasonal continental market or Sleigh Bar demonstrates shows that town centres can still be a destination if the right activity is on offer to draw people in. The creation of a vibrant environment for those who live, work and visit these areas is essential to ensure that there is a continued heart to our towns and cities.
Important measures need to be taken to secure alternative, appropriate uses. Policy will need to be in place to encourage leisure and businesses uses but avoid short term lease and high turnover businesses from securing high profile premises. There should be a commitment to vibrancy, rather than payday loan stores or betting shops. If these uses are all the High Street will support then planning policies are failing.
Fundamental changes are required to the way our centres operate and a less retail focussed experience is essential. Only in this way will the decline of the High Street be successfully addressed with activity and vibrancy stimulated. The shift in focus has the potential to create both jobs and an enhanced living environment which supports activity throughout the day and into the evening. The creation of a wider sense of community around the High Street will assist in securing the long term future of this key Town Centre asset.