It is said Britain is a nation of shopkeepers, but when you realise it was a description coined by Napoleon, you understand how out of date it is. You need only walk though many of the UK’s town centres to realise this is no longer the case.
Gone are the days, seen in black and white photographs, when the high street was truly a centre of the community, lined with independent butchers, grocers and general stores where you really could buy four candles. Yet harking back to a golden age of retailing misses the point. This nation of shopkeepers has long since become a nation of shopping centres and precincts, each filled with identikit shops that don’t really tell you anything about a place. For too long, our thinking has remained the same: build retail, and the people will come.
The way people live is changing. Online shopping has proved a quicker, more convenient way of getting hold of the items we need than a Saturday morning trek into town. These changes, along with the pressures of a weak pound post-Brexit, have claimed their victims, with a recent run of retail collapses leaving behind boarded up shops across the country or populated by charity shops and betting outlets. Our nation of shopkeepers simply has too many shops – recent figures show that there are over 27,000 empty premises in England’s town centres.
If we really want to re-establish our town centres as the heart of the community, then we need to stop thinking of retail as the silver bullet. That is not to say that there are no successful town centres and I am sure it is no coincidence that those that are succeeding and the businesses which are thriving in today’s retail climate are cafes, beauty parlours, bookshops and independent retailers. These may be retailers, but often they are also meeting places that allow us to connect, both with those around us and the wider world. And that human connection is becoming even more important, when loneliness and isolation is a challenge facing many in every generation, both rural and urban.
We need to start thinking of our high streets as communities once again, and start incorporating all that entails: homes, yes, but also schools, theatres, leisure facilities and open-air spaces. We need to accept that retail is an important part of what a thriving community needs, but also acknowledge that it is not the central aspect. It has been encouraging to see this need reflected in the Chancellor establishing a £675m fund to help high streets adapt as part of the recent Budget, as well as in Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, James Brokenshire’s recent announcement of the Open Doors project, which will seek to match landlords of vacant retail units with community groups in need of space.
Initiatives like these are important in helping us redress the balance of uses within our town centres, but there is more we can do. Take Sittingbourne, where we’re currently working on a £100 million Public Private Partnership alongside Swale Borough Council, Quinn Estates and Essential Land. It’s an ambitious masterplan which aims to transform the town centre and bring life back to its heart. It’s more than a quick facelift – we’re remodelling the road layout to make it more inviting for pedestrians and better link the high street to the railway station. Alongside new restaurants, shops and a cinema, there’ll also be over 200 much-needed new homes, creating somewhere to rest as well as play.
If we truly want to save our high streets, then we need more local authorities to be braver in their thinking, taking a master-planning approach to their town centres and making bold decisions about how they should be developed to serve communities better. Through thoughtful, mixed-use regeneration, which brings together retail, offices, community and leisure spaces, we can create town centres where people can not only shop, but work, meet and spend time, too. With a little imagination, and the audacity to put plans into action, we can create places that will serve their communities for years to come.