High and dry streets?

A report from Colliers CRE, shows a polarising nation of shopkeepers: with growing inequality between thriving high streets and those that are failing.

High Street UK

Jonathan Schifferes is a consultant for the new economics foundation (nef)

Yesterday’s report from Colliers CRE, highlighted in the Financial Times (£), shows a polarising nation of shopkeepers: with growing inequality between the UK’s thriving high streets and those that are “degenerating” or failing.

Since shops are largely supported by the money earned in the homes of those who live close, it is no surprise that growing local and regional inequalities are visible in the retail industry. Colliers is right to highlight that the recession has tipped some high streets into a downward spiral.

No shop or café wants to be next door to a vacant unit; retailers benefit from being in a cluster of shops which complement one another – or even provide healthy competition. But falling rents do not necessarily indicate a negative change. Landlords will be understandably upset, but towns can still thrive despite falling rents.

We need a dose of reality: incomes, profits and asset prices (property) will not always grow hand in hand, together on an infinite carousel.

Our high streets represent the physical centre of most villages, towns and cities in the UK. They have an inherent advantage in their centrality: their proximity to bus and train stations, libraries and offices, churches and town halls, and their often significant catchment of residents who can walk there.

They are also flexible spaces: streets can be turned into temporary markets, and shop units can be refitted meet growing demand for cafés or hairdressers or nursery schools. On these factors, out-of-town malls and retail parks will never compete. Vacant units are the solution, not the problem.

Planners and entrepreneurs need to make the most of this centrality and flexibility, and to be empowered to enforce action to prevent landlords simply holding vacant property until rents recover.

What nef would like to inject into the high street debate is a fresh set of perspectives on high street success. Mary Portas, currently leading a government review, has a brief to find ways to foster “more prosperous and diverse” high streets. We have long argued that diversity provides both resilience and a unique draw for the high street.

Unique, independent shops – which queen Mary has helped turn into viable businesses – are inherently, irreplaceable local attractions. Clone towns, comprised of national chain stores, are in fact vulnerable in their conformity.

For an intelligent debate we also need to differentiate between the impact of different retailers. Locally-owned or employee-owned stores often recycle profits – not just wages – into their local communities rather than to a global legion of shareholders.

We hope that the review looks at prosperity from the point of view of local residents, and defines prosperity as more than income and wealth, but the flourishing of individual and community well-being.

The high street has evolved through recessions before; it is not high and dry in the long-term. If the current model of prosperity on our high street is failing shops and their consumers, what we need are new models.

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