How to Save the High Street

The terminal decline of Britain's high streets is a consequence of towns built around consumption. We urgently need a new model based on community – one which puts public space before private profit.

The coronavirus pandemic has battered town centres, with high-street retailers like Debenhams and Topshop going to the wall on what feels like a weekly basis. The process has been accelerated, but high streets have been in a terminal decline for years – and contrary to most reporting on the issue, the biggest casualty isn’t capital, but workers and their communities.

Politicians have long acknowledged the dwindling of once vibrant high streets, but have so far been reluctant to articulate an uncomfortable truth: the identity of town centres is at present inextricably wrapped up in consumerism. The twenty-first century paradigm shift in the way consumers behave—driven by the convenience and choice offered by out-of-town shopping centres and the continued growth and dominance of online retailing—has therefore proved an existential threat. It is a structural issue, and no amount of tinkering around the edges with business rates reform or free parking on weekends is going to solve it.

The Grimsey Review, first published in 2013 and updated in 2018, is, if anything, more relevant now than it was then. Authored by business magnate Bill Grimsey, it nonetheless offers surprisingly thoughtful insights as to the problem with faltering centres. It notes that people are, at root, social animals, that an excess of retail space in town centres prevent them from existing as gathering places for the whole community, and that there needs to be a powerful new localism with the promise of a fundamental shift of power away from Westminster.

Likewise, the review’s blueprint of the twenty-first century town centre as a space that works for communities has much to recommend it. The centre is imagined as a ‘community hub’ offering access to housing, health, leisure, entertainment, and art, alongside the currently dominant business and retail space. The necessity of embedding libraries and other public services is made explicit, and the review argues that curating a distinct sense of place, predicated on a town’s unique cultural heritage, is vital.

A mixed-use town centre with a diversity of activity beyond retail, built on a foundation of individuals as citizens first and consumers second, rather than the reverse, holds an obvious benefit. In place of our own high streets with their fundamental vulnerability to market forces, we would have places of resilience and stability. The social value of public spaces is well established, too: access to public spaces benefits integration and cohesion across all demographics, and deepens community ties.

For Keir Starmer—who, nearly a year on from his election, is still operating in a policy vacuum and struggling to justify the existence of his leadership—there would be political benefits to this kind of focus. Feelings of belonging, identity, and a pride-of-place are strong predictors of electoral politics; if the Labour Party is serious about ‘reclaiming’ patriotism from the Tories, they would be much better placed to pursue a renewed commitment to localism, and the rejuvenation of areas with which voters have concrete relationships, than through abstractions of nationhood. The flag-heavy alternative, which borrows rhetoric from the Right, is exclusionary by definition and gives cover to racists and xenophobes while heightening community tensions, rather than strengthening them on the basis of shared public space.

If Starmer is serious about winning elections, he could do worse than to take Labour’s election review—conducted by the movement rather than an outsourced agency—seriously. The report correctly stresses that Labour’s loss in 2019 cannot be understood in isolation, but is part of a broader decline in support for the Party—especially in the mythologised ‘Red Wall’ seats—as a result of long-term factors like political alienation, stagnation, geographic inequality, and de-industrialisation. These communities will not be won back by condescension; and if the Labour Party doesn’t articulate a positive vision for what town centres will look like in the future, no parties will.

At present, the latter of those two options seems more likely. In the absence of action from the leadership, it therefore falls to the wider movement to articulate a vision of town centres that are fit for purpose, and to campaign to make that vision a reality.

Community wealth building, best encapsulated by the Preston Model, is central to left localism. One of the five key principles of community wealth building is the socially-productive use of land and property. This principle is central to housing campaigns that seek to rejuvenate the stock of affordable and good-quality council homes, and in efforts to defend what we already have – but to beat the current rate of decline, we have to go much further.

As well as being the focus of specific campaigns, the spatial economy should be central to the Left’s strategy of community wealth building. No one else is going to turn our town centres and high streets into thriving hubs of activity that work for us. Let’s do it ourselves.