Sunday, 7 October 2012

Is the Future of the High Street Online?



                                              East Grinstead High Street West Sussex UK


Last Thursday evening I attended one of the Royal Institute of British Architect's Building Futures debates at the offices of BDP in London. The subject of the debate was a motion that this house believes the future of the high street is online.

Proposing the motion was Anne-Marie Laing of accountants Zolfo Cooper. Opposing the motion was Peter Drummond of BDP architects and masterplanners.

Key points in the case for the motion

·         People no longer want to go to the high street; the offer is poor and declining.
·         The quality of shops on the high street is poor and getting worse.
·         Innovative retailers are now working from home and delivering through on-line channels.
·         Online retail offers a far greater choice to the consumer.
·         Online retail growth will mean that the high street will no longer be viable for shopping but it may be viable for other activities such as health care, learning facilities, workshops and housing.

Key point in the case against the motion

·         Many high streets are still thriving – especially those which have nurtured independent businesses, not just national brand chain retailers.
·         Examples such as Willesden High Road in NW London show what can be done.
·         But the problems are more acute in places like Nottingham and Barnsley where national retail chains are abandoning traditional high streets in favour of out of town locations. But his can present an opportunity to accommodate independents if landlords will accept realistic rents.
·         In low income towns the high street is still the only shopping opportunity for people who cannot afford or who cannot access retail and entertainment on line.
·         In many places the high street remains the only place with facilities for congregation and we need to make it a much more pleasant experience to do so.
·         High streets and town centre remain a vital lifeline for the older people in our communities and for the less mobile.

Key points in the debate

·         The UK government needs to implement its own “Town Centres First” policy and stop ignoring it.
·         This would provide investors and retailers with confidence to develop in town centres.
·         The future of the high street is less about retail than it is about remaking it to be fit for purpose for a new set of needs and wants of local people – needs and wants related to what they want to congregate to do.
·         Online communications are important for the future health of the high street.
·         They will be important to carry “Summons to the Commons” for congregation”.
·         We need to understand what people want to congregate to do together and what role the high street and town centre will play in meeting those needs.
·         Many existing high streets are places of “shared victories” – war memorials and the like, that used to bring people together. What will be their 21st century equivalents?
·         A great example of a revived high street is Marylebone High Street which benefited from a single clear minded renewal strategy by one landlord.
·         A big problem for lots of high streets is the multiple ownership of landlords and their clinging to expectations of unrealistic rental levels and being happy to keep shops vacant while receiving rent from departed leaseholders.
·         We need “intelligent” landlords, people who are realistic about rental expectations.
·         And a major problem with the large gated shopping malls like Westfield is their lack of diversity and the lack of independent retailers.
·         But there is no standard “silver bullet” answer to reviving the high street – each one will need careful planning by a partnership of local interests.
·         Local authorities can lead this process but they must not dominate it.

The motion was substantially and conclusively defeated