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30 June 2020updated 26 Jul 2021 11:12am

To save British high streets, forget the lost era of retail – and listen to millennials

The future of our town centres lies in experiences of culture, leisure and food rather than giant shopping centres.

By Bill Grimsey

Last week, it was revealed the government is planning to launch a £20m advertising blitz to persuade the public to return to life as normal. A “starburst” of photo opps showing people sitting with friends in cafes will welcome Brits back to the high street. Ministerial visits to shops are planned and slogans being dusted off as government prepares to hard-sell the message that Britain is rapidly returning to normal.

There’s just one problem with this approach. Our high streets are not going back to normal. Ever again.

The writing’s been on the wall for the British high street for some time now. The British Retail Consortium said 2019 was retail’s worst year ever. But 2020 is going to be far worse.

No one knows yet the extent of the damage caused by the pandemic, but we know retail is shrinking. The high street retail space will shrink by 25 per cent by 2022-23, according to the accountancy giant KPMG – but it could happen sooner.

I recently published a Covid-19 high street review with a team of experts, which analysed the latest published accounts of every UK retailer. We found almost half were at risk of failure. 

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Since then, shopping centre giant Intu has gone into administration and many retailers have not paid rent this quarter.

All of this points to one unavoidable, inescapable truth. We have to stop keeping a failed model on life support and embrace change.

[See more: Leicester’s lockdown shows how Covid-19 is worsening the UK’s inequalities]

The public can already smell this change. Polls show they’ve become more attached to their local area, enjoyed the fresh air and stronger community spirit. They’re getting used to buying online and don’t want to jump back into smog-filled traffic jams.

We need to rethink our towns and high streets so they are healthier, greener places – and primarily about people. This is already starting to happen in towns and cities around the world. From Athens to Seattle, a blueprint is being developed to liberate public space from cars and redesign them in favour of cyclists and pedestrians.

Car parks are being converted to green space, cycle lanes expanded and in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, the city has been turned into an open-air café where hundreds of bars and restaurants are setting up in plazas, squares and streets.

In Paris, Anne Hidalgo has just been re-elected as mayor on a promise to make the French capital a people-friendly city by removing cars and increasing space for cyclists and pedestrians. Leaders like her recognise cities of the future will no longer be designed exclusively around the car.

And nor will their raison d’etre be just about shopping. A younger generation is no longer blindly following rampant consumerism. Studies show millennials would rather spend their money on an experience or an event than buying things.

The experience economy and a community hub model built around culture, leisure and food will reshape our high streets – with retail no longer being the mainstay.

This won’t happen on its own, though. There are too many vested interests tied up in a 20th century model that will resist it.

Local authorities will need to resume their role as custodians of place and stop making disastrous investments in shopping centres for speculative returns. Instead, they should concentrate on building community and embrace a spirit of experimentation. This will drive permanent change and allow us to get to grips with big challenges we’ve been ducking for years.

This means government scrapping the most draconian, unfair tax on the books: business rates. Replace it with a straightforward 2 per cent sales tax that will raise the same amount as before and level the playing field between online and offline retailers.

[See more: Why gardening matters]

It also means reforming the property market, coming up with a formula for a fair rent and introducing community right-to-buy laws to ensure unused or neglected properties are forced back onto the market, and can be bought by community trusts or local authorities.

We need more community businesses on the high street that are invested in their local area. This should reflect a shift from shareholder capitalism, which cares only about maximising returns to its shareholders, to stakeholder capitalism, which has wider societal concerns and prioritises the wellbeing of staff and communities.

In truth, we need fewer Philip Greens and more Steve Murrellses on the high street, and less fancy financial engineering and more community conscience.

Unless we accept this now and start planning for the future, our high streets are certain to wither away and die a slow death.

Looking at our high streets, sometimes it feels like we’re flogging an old model to death, desperate to squeeze the last drops of value out of a formula that once served us well.

Our leaders need to stop persisting with ostrich syndrome and expecting the clock to go back 30 years. It’s time ministers ditched an unconvincing rallying cry to save the status quo and started talking about changing the high street. Then we can begin to build back better.

Bill Grimsey is the former chief executive of Iceland, Wickes and Focus. He recently reviewed Covid-19’s impact on the high street.

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