When I was a development surveyor, whilst working on a project refitting an office, 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 growing rate of shopping centre construction as “the most hazardous” issue for local authorities. In contrast, the rise of residential developments is described as “a safe bet”.
Although the journal explores the economic factors involved in building a new shopping area, in the 1960s, a detailed technical assessment was not possible. All you could expect was a limited assessment, often backed by research from the government, rather than the plethora of private sector experts we now have available. However, even that limited assessment in 1965, trying to forecast the future of the ‘traditional’ town centre, was perhaps better than the response from policy-makers today. Few now seem to have a grip on how the high street will survive and few 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, with construction beginning in 1965, would not be delivered for five years. They were also aware that this new area, from its construction date all the way up to 1981, had to satisfy the needs of the population. That may seem like some pretty long-term forecasting, but that is the purpose of planning.
Today, there is less of an idea about what will happen to the high street in the short term. 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 improving landscaping and signage, but the retail landscape continues to change. Large supermarkets are now pulling out of new large-scale developments and smaller convenience stores are taking their place, apparently because they are the preference for the modern customer who is too busy to go on 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 now bypasses 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, perhaps the high street can 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. In terms of the high street having to plan to survive, it appears that history is repeating itself.
Guy Middleton is the founder and CEO of H4 Group. He established a CGI studio in China in 2000, ‘transforming great designs into works of art.’ Guy retains daily involvement with his studio in China and continues to act as a consultant in the UK on property, particularly buildings that house parts of the creative world.
Clients include: Curzon Cinemas, Ambassador Theatre Group, The Soho Theatre, The Donmar Theatre, The Globe, The Bush, The Royal Festival Hall and The Royal Court Theatre.