If we are going to truly reinvigorate our high streets and to restore the identity, locality and sense of community that is required to get them bustling again, we shall need to provide places for people to work, meet, socialise and enjoy
We’re feeling really hopeful that local, community businesses can strengthen their role on the high street and that there are new opportunities in places that have suffered – there is a clear opportunity for revival
Nick Plumb, policy manager at Power to Change
When we started writing the future of real estate report in March 2020, as the first lockdown dawned, we were thinking about the ways that our relationship with real estate might be transformed for good. Change, it seemed, was inevitable. For many the period since then has been a full-time experiment in living locally; we have abandoned commutes and travel plans and transformed our behaviour as consumers to spend our time, and source more of our needs, closer to home. This dramatic shift towards the 'local' has brought our high streets back into focus.
'Smaller, local shops have seen an uplift during Covid-19, or at least have seen a fairly sustained trade. It is partly because all the people living nearby are at home and are rediscovering shops on their doorstep'
Graham Soult, Retail Consultant
The spotlight has been shone on the UK's ailing high streets before. We don’t need to recount the history here, but successive initiatives have tried and (generally) failed to find a solution to the challenges faced by these forgotten places. However, here in the pandemic we have seen more than mere glimmers of hope that the fortunes of these former staples of the community could be recovering.
Lockdown caused consumer behaviour to change on a scale not seen in a generation, creating a demand for a higher quality of services than were available before. This change, when combined with falling rents and increased flexibility in the planning system, presents an opportunity for different types of businesses to move onto the high street. But what do people want and how will the high street evolve? We surveyed a nationally representative group of 2,004 UK adults in February 2021 and this report looks at what we might learn from their responses, as well as drawing on the views of experts.
Nearly 70% believe the local high street has been fundamentally changed by Covid. 78% say that they have altered how much they use their local high street, with 10% vowing to shop there exclusively from now on. Additionally, people have started spending more at independent businesses; in fact, 33% of people are saying that they do not want to see independent shops close and chains take over. However, some are disappointed. 80% admitted they will not use their local high street as regularly once restrictions are lifted.
What is it that will enable our high streets to thrive once again? Shops are only one component of the high street of the future. If we are going to truly reinvigorate our high streets and to restore the identity, locality and sense of community that is required to get them bustling again, we shall need to creative places for people to work, meet, socialise and enjoy. We are working with creatives, entrepreneurs and innovators who are developing new solutions to these needs. These will include hospitality, entertainment and leisure venues alongside flex-office space, business premises and other more traditional local services. Community groups and not-for-profit organisations can play an important part in this process, and we look forward to continuing the discussion of this evolving situation with all parties.
Lockdown caused consumer behaviour to change on a scale not seen in a generation. This change, when combined with falling rents and increased flexibility in the planning system, presents an opportunity for different types of businesses to move onto the high street
A quarter of our respondents would like to see more of a balance between chains and independents on the high street and twice as many people value independents more, and in particular independently run bars, restaurants and cafes
Since we have been forced to stay in our immediate neighbourhoods, we are far more aware about what makes our local areas unique. Now, more than ever, we are enjoying what independent businesses bring to communities and many of us want more of - not only the products and services they offer, but also the feeling of connecting with and investing in the community that supporting local independent business can bring.
Convenience is king
Today the local high street is not only competing with out of town retail but also the world of online shopping. Online retail has taken a firmer hold during the pandemic. Where convenience lies at the touch of a button, the local high street's retailers will need to offer products that people need at once.
Specifically, people want to see more shops that sell useful amenities like DIY, hardware and food products over hotels and gyms. That is not to say that they want a purely practical high street; 20% would also like to see more leisure and entertainment facilities. Treorchy, a village in the Rhondda Fawr, Wales, boasts a high street made up of around 80% independent shops that sell everything from groceries and clothing to hardware and everyday services.
Even before Covid we were seeing a growing sense that the point of the high street was to offer services that you can’t get from Amazon. It needs to offer something different – value, convenience, local produce, quality
Graham Soult, Retail Consultant and High Streets Task Force expert
24 hour high streets
'Occupiers can afford to be less static in their use of space and this might wring additional value from the places on our high streets'
As the local high street has taken on a new importance in people’s lives during the pandemic, there is the potential to explore new opportunities for the night-time economy too and to revitalise communities outside of regular retail hours. It’s not an entirely new concept – in Newcastle, for example, the Grainger Town Project was attempting to inject new life into different parts of the city centre through ‘Living Above the Shop’ projects two decades ago, and a focus on developing more diverse city centre uses has continued ever since.
The entertainment and experience economy
'I think people will be looking for entertainment on a more local level. It’s something that’s been happening for a while'
Ben Lovett, CEO of Venue Group, and co-founder of folk band Mumford & Sons
The Covid-19 pandemic has prompted people to place greater value on many non-essential services that they have been denied, such as their local cinema, music venue, comedy club and theatre and to look for them locally.
Placemaking through heritage and history
'People are still going to want to support and visit and enjoy interesting and distinctive things. It’s all about giving them a reason to go somewhere'
Graham Soult, retail consultant and high streets task force expert
Each local high street, be it previously a Medieval drinking quarter or Georgian social hub, is historically unique in some way. High streets should not just provide for local needs – by leveraging the unique 'brand' of their heritage and history, they can attract visitors too.
Partnerships between local authorities, private sector businesses and the community are essential to driving community-centric change but there is a lack of clarity over whose responsibility it is to bring these groups together, and what role they should fulfil as part of leading or contributing to change
Communities look to reclaim the high street
As the pandemic continues to stifle businesses on the high street, the number of empty units is growing by the day. However, in those abandoned buildings there is potential. As our radiuses have shrunk to our local areas, we are more invested than ever in rebuilding the high street on our own terms.
It is undeniable that over the course of a very tough year, people’s needs have changed. One in five (20% and 19% respectively) want to see community-run pubs and shops, over a quarter would like to see empty buildings transformed into spaces available for the community and a quarter would like to see community spaces designed for socialising. intoBodmin is a social initiative in Cornwall that is working with communities to provide them with shared spaces and giving support to local groups and enterprises. What results is economic and wellbeing growth and the creation of a renewed sense of community and pride about the town.
The office on your doorstep
'Increasingly, people would like to see business hubs where they can do their work uninterrupted from the distractions at home. For people craving the social aspect of office life, these 'third spaces' are the perfect way to meet like-minded professionals from the same area'
After a year of working from home, asking employees to start making the hours-long commute back to the office every day will be a tough sell. At the same time, people want to re-establish some boundaries between work and home, play, professional life and parenting. Local high streets could offer a very appealing middle ground.
The green high street
'Local food connects communities. Purchasing from local sources allows direct relationships with the producers and can create a greater sense of community and connectivity'
Radcliffe Market, Greater Manchester
As people have been forced to keep to the confines of their local area, many are appreciating the nearby green spaces that they were previously too busy to enjoy. With this increased appreciation comes the demand for more locally grown produce, sustainably reared meat and greater environmental consideration in the everyday life of the local high street.
The high street is not going away; in fact, people have realised its importance more than ever during an especially difficult year. However, there are gaps and as the world slowly shifts to a ‘new normal’, the high street must change accordingly.
Our research suggests that community, convenience and third space working and social facilities are some of the key forces shaping the high street’s future.
'The high street isn’t going away, nor is it dying, but it is transforming, changing in purpose and function – and to move as quickly as consumer behaviour and expectations are changing is very challenging for organisations'
Only by listening to the community and creating bold, innovative and imaginative solutions, will local businesses prove their relevance in an increasingly digitised world.
The media loves this idea that the high street has to be ‘saved’. But I think you should drop the ‘save’ and replace it with ‘reinvent’. We need social places that are fit for 21st century living