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It’s Time to Socialise the High Street

Britain's high streets were already in crisis before Covid-19, but now many are on the verge of dereliction – it's time for a bold plan to socialise them and build thriving centres of community life.

One of the many questions posed by the coronavirus pandemic is, what is the high street for? 

Like many of the most pertinent questions, it was relevant before the virus took hold. What state will our high streets be in when we emerge from this crisis?

It’s easy to romanticise the 7,000 high streets in the UK. But in recent years they have become synonymous with big retail firms. When the fate of the high street is debated by economic commentators and in business news the focus is on the profit and loss accounts of those firms. 

Major analysis from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) published last summer shows that, although we tend to think of the high street as a place to shop, only one-third of high street addresses are owned or occupied by retail businesses.

More than half of the high street is residential, and a tiny fraction – between 1% and 2% – are community-run facilities. Once lockdown is fully lifted, the proportion of the high street made up by shops is likely to be even smaller. 

Our high streets are ailing – but not just because of the pandemic. Footfall to high streets and shopping centres has declined by 10% over the past seven years and perhaps by 1.8% year-on-year between September 2018 and 2019.

If this is driven by the pull of online shopping, and the push of rising costs, then the closure of non-essential shops between March and June was always likely to reinforce this. Recent ONS data shows that while online shopping has slipped from more than 33% of sales in May to less than 32% in June, compared with a year ago when online was still only 20% of UK retail sales. There appears to be a major adjustment underway. 

One-third of those who took part in research by consultants Alvarez and Marsal identified the way they shop as one of the aspects of their lives that is most likely to change when the pandemic has passed. Similarly, around one-third said they would be more likely to shop online and less likely to visit physical stores.

If even a relatively small fraction of consumers pursue this logic, then that will almost certainly be enough to tip the most precarious businesses in non-food retail and hospitality – many that we still may think of as stalwarts of the high street – over the edge, with significant job losses. The demise of shopping centre holding firm Intu points to how systemic this trend probably is. 

If shop closures are inevitable, and already a reality on many of the high streets of smaller city and working town Britain, then what will happen to these units? Underneath its Build Build Build mantra, the UK government seems to think that relaxing planning laws will lead to commercial property being converted into homes.

This may also be inevitable. We need more homes, albeit ones which are affordable rather than luxury apartments. But as high streets expert Will Brett points out, the approach risks losing civic space and conceding many town centres to an effective privatisation. 

A decade ago, the New Economics Foundation warned prophetically of a clone-town Britain in which the march of large supermarkets and homogenous clothing retail was driving smaller businesses off the high street and turning cities and towns into shop-a-like zombies.

But in the light of online shopping and the housing bubble, and with demand probably reshaped by lockdown, that prediction now almost seems rosy – even though the corporate takeover of the high street brings with it a miasma of low wages, zero-hours contracts, poor working conditions and has resulted in over-leveraged households. 

The mistake was to build a vision of the high street around consumption and now is the time to move away from this. While high streets in gentrified urban neighbourhoods with deep pockets host boutique butchers, delicatessens and £4.50-per-loaf artisanal bread shops, most high streets look much more bleak. But our economy as a whole should be led by investment and not by households having to overconsume via costly borrowing to keep our high streets afloat.

Brett’s lyrical vision of civic space holds the clue to an alternative, ‘socialisation’ of high streets. This won’t happen by accident or through the liberalisation of planning rules. It will happen through an active intervention at state and local level, along with civil society groups, to bring people back to commune rather than just to consume.

Traffic needs to be diverted and high streets made safe, pollution-free, and walkable, with strong measures to safeguard women and people of colour in particular. Relief from business rates (beyond the recent pandemic holiday), some levelling on effective tax rates between online and bricks and mortar, and regulation of commercial rents for smaller firms owned by local people, will help bring character and a sense of place and stimulate local economies.

The New Economics Foundation also proposes that, with increasingly insecure and atomised work for many people, new worker centres would enable people to access advice and form cooperatives and unions. These could be cornerstones of a new civic high street, as could intergenerational care centres. 

Plenty will say that it’s wrong to hanker after a vision of the high street that is long gone. They’d probably be right. But civic space has declined while consumption has grown and now those consumer patterns are shifting, accelerated by Covid, there’s a chance for some breathing space.

Visionary local leadership should aim for the creation of places for people to congregate and exchange social as well economic value and not capitulate to a final hollowing out through a last-ditch, central government liberalisation drive.