Town Centres & High Streets – The Future Is Now

Simon Darby

Crises and shocks to economies tend to act as a catalyst for reform. They also tend to accelerate trends and changes already beginning to take hold as individuals, families and businesses seek solutions to their changed environment. In this regard, the current COVID-19 crisis looks set to be no different.

In the midst of a global public health pandemic, attention is rightly utterly focused on mitigating the outbreak and ensuring peoples’ health and livelihoods are protected as best as possible. Whilst this is – and has to be – the immediate priority facing the government, it is also worth giving consideration to some of the longer-term impacts that are likely to be felt as the UK looks towards recovering from COVID-19.

One area recovery plans will need to focus on will be the UK’s town centres and high streets. The debate over the viability of the ‘traditional’ high street and whether they can be saved has rumbled on for a number of years now, with a range of (sometimes token) funds announced and proposals on business rates reform put forward on a periodic basis. The issue has been fudged time and again, yet the current crisis may well prove the shock that transforms our town centres up and down the country.

Demanding the nation stay at home has, of course, had a direct impact on the high street. Already we are hearing reports of high-street retailers going into administration, with more likely to follow if the Office for Budgetary Responsibility’s cataclysmic forecast of a possible 35% fall in GDR comes remotely near to fruition. Naturally, this places the high street in a precarious position.

However, the crisis has also sped up and magnified two trends impacting on town centres and high streets, namely the growth of online shopping and the growth of remote working.

Neither of these trends are particularly new. However, with the nation having been placed on lockdown, the ease of ordering purchases online and the ability to work from home rather than commute into town centre offices has reached a large portion of the population. COVID-19 has put rocket-boosters under both these trends and is very likely to change peoples’ behaviours over the longer-term. If ever greater numbers of people continue to shop online and increase the amount of remote working they do, it poses difficult questions for high-streets and town centres filled with shops and offices – notably, what are they for?

Policymakers at both a local and national level will be fully aware of the challenge this presents. Whilst worrying, there is also the opportunity to transform town centres and high streets positively. The COVID-19 crisis has brought out the community-natured side of people across the country – town centres and high streets, properly repurposed, can harness this. From different types of local independent shops (which appear to be picking up trade in the current environment), greater levels of housing, community hubs, and creative spaces the future of the high street can look vastly different and, importantly, still perform a crucial role. To do that, policymakers need to be bold, to develop strong community-centred visions for local areas and to support a real liberalisation of planning regulations and laws to enable town centres to flourish. Given the challenges mounting, they may not have a choice.

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