Paul Belfield, Director at Rund shares his thoughts on how we can future-proof high streets.
High streets were once places for local people to congregate and interact, with bustling pavements lined with prospering independent businesses and large retailers. The high street was the heart of local communities and a vital source of meaning and belonging, allowing people to feel connected to the places they lived. Unfortunately, the allure to and the necessity of the high street has been muddied for some time, with a multitude of factors affecting its fast decline over the twenty years. Reimagining these areas cannot be done properly without applying the learnings of the past two decades to create area-specific concepts, which are engrained in futureproofing and resiliency. Ultimately, the goal must be to create safe, inviting and sustainable environments for communities to come together, year after year.
Achieving the vision for the future of the high street cannot be done without the consideration of wider changes in society including technological advancements, greater social mobility and changing tastes, needs and economic fortunes. Specific requirements driven by the pandemic are already re-shaping what people want from their local environments. Some of these trends focus on the longing for increased individuality and authentic experiences in local areas, with a greater commitment to small independent businesses that can easily identify the provenance of their goods. Important to others is the easy access to local health facilities, co-working spaces and outdoor green areas.
This means placemaking of the town centre and high street revival has to be done individually, assessing the priority needs for local and future demographics to create meaningful spaces that will add value to local communities. Distinctiveness and a sense of place matter to people, and when it comes to thriving high streets, it is not a ‘one size fits all’ solution. High streets must tell the story of a place not just through aesthetics but also from an understanding of the area’s history, preservation of bricks and mortar, and a consideration of how the high street can continue to serve its community for years to come. Placemaking must be teamed with technical due diligence, establishing how commercial buildings will be sustainable and low energy, whilst being adept to future social, technological, economic and regulatory changes to maximise the life cycle value and promote people’s health, happiness, and well-being.
In a recent article from Property Week, the industry slammed Rishi Sunak’s pledge to save the high street, with many arguing that any plan that fails to address the high cost of business rates isn’t credible. Earlier this month, Sunak promised to reduce the number of vacant shops by 2025 but didn’t specify a figure. This received mixed reviews from the wider property industry, with one industry heavyweight saying that the next Prime Minister needs to focus on creating the right conditions for town centres to be reimagined.
The government’s Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill was introduced with the intention of improving the planning system to give communities a louder voice, making sure developments are beautiful, green and accompanied by new infrastructure and affordable housing. The Bill also introduced the idea of ‘street votes’, giving residents and the local authorities the power to propose further developments on their streets and enabling neighbourhood residents to take planning powers into their own hands. This is by means of an infrastructure levy, teamed with faster local plan preparation, and revisions to environmental assessments to provide local authorities with the powers they need to regenerate and revitalise town centres up and down the UK. Local authorities will in essence have the power to enforce property owners to rent out commercial premises to combat empty and boarded up commercial units in town centres. Hearing directly from local communities about what is needed and required in any given area is of extreme value – but we cannot and must not be blinkered by the here and now.
Retail guru Mary Portas recently claimed in City AM that the future of the high street will involve “less retail but better retail”. Portas stated that ministers must “stop all this messing about and fighting”, and start to look at ways to protect small businesses, which make up the majority of firms in the UK. In 2011, Portas released her high street report, commissioned by then Prime Minister David Cameron. In the report, she stated “once we invest in and create social capital in the heart of our communities, the economic capital will follow.” A sentiment which most local communities will agree with.
Ultimately, spaces need to be able to serve communities long after they’re imagined. If the will is to revitalise the high street and local communities, we must look at how best to ensure buildings and spaces are futureproofed and resilient. We must use experience, technology and skill to determine how places will best serve communities for years to come, standing the test of time for generations to come. Whether it’s planning policy assessments and capacity studies, effective placemaking is anchored in research, and a technical understanding of spaces and places. It’s romantic to think a local consultation can determine the changes that any given community needs in order to prosper – but decisions should be looked at through the lens of detailed and technical due diligence. Local authorities must ensure they are collaborating with specialists in the sector can help overcome this void in knowledge, and expedite redeveloping local communities as a means of breaking through the red tape. After all, the goal is mutual; to improve the areas we all call home.