Revitalizing High Streets: The Role of Independent Shops

A Three-Year Study Reveals Key to High Street Revival

Recent research suggests a significant shift towards independent stores and ‘browse-only’ shops may hold the key to revitalizing struggling high streets. This conclusion was drawn from a comprehensive three-year study conducted by Manchester Metropolitan University that analyzed 100 UK high streets. The research, funded by the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851, identified key issues and potential solutions to help revive these critical retail areas.

Challenges Facing the High Street

High streets have faced numerous challenges over the past decade. Ordinance Survey research highlights that between March 2020 and March 2022, the UK saw a decrease of 9,300 retail outlets, largely due to the impact of Covid lockdowns and a shift towards online shopping. The decline in ‘big retail’ – large chain stores – has been particularly severe, with 40% of retail space now surplus to requirements.

The Future of Retail Growth

Despite these challenges, there are hopeful signs for the future of high streets. The research identified six key trends that could positively impact retail growth. These include the rise of independent retailers, the return of activities such as ‘showrooming’ and smaller convenience stores, the mixed use of physical and online retailing known as ‘omni-channel retail’, the unique in-store experience of touching and feeling products, offering distinctive products, and a shift towards experiential consumption.

Recommendations for Revitalizing Town Centres

Based on the research findings, the team proposed several key strategies to counter the decline of high streets. These include halting out-of-town development, better town planning, preparing for future uncertainty by creating adaptable urban environments, increasing retail diversity, addressing vacancy issues, reforming business rates, and considering new models for town centre development. Goole’s Freeport Tax Site: A Major Move towards Economic Growth is an example of such innovative thinking.

Rejecting Traditional Ownership Models

The researchers also suggest moving away from the traditional ownership model of shopping centres. Instead, they advocate for a diversity of owners and units to encourage innovation and resilience. Furthermore, improving the environment of high streets can instill confidence, change perceptions, and offer practical advantages such as space for seating and markets.

Implications of the Findings

The recommendations from this study will inform national government policies, such as business rate reforms and a rethink on permitted development rights. They will also guide local councils and consultants developing town centre proposals, helping them make informed decisions on how best to allocate funds and resources.

A Hopeful Future for High Streets

Despite the challenges, the researchers remain optimistic about the future of high streets. Dr Lucy Montague, Senior Lecturer at Manchester Met’s School of Architecture, believes adaptable town centres can foster better, quicker recovery. They have the potential to regain their character and diversity that were once overshadowed by big retailers.

A Glimpse at the High Street’s Past and Future

David Rudlin, Manchester Met’s Visiting Professor of Urbanism, acknowledges that high streets have faced continuous challenges since the advent of supermarkets in the 1960s, out-of-town retailing in the 1990s, and the rise of internet shopping. However, he highlights the high street’s resilience and ability to bounce back, asserting that the future of high streets lies in understanding the diagnosis before prescribing solutions.

Beyond Aesthetic Changes

Vicky Payne, co-author of the book and Independent Consultant and Associate at Jas Bhalla Architects, adds that aesthetic changes to the high street are just a small part of the solution. She believes that robust, diverse approaches such as delivery models, management, stewardship, planning policy, land use, and physical configuration can help transform high streets into thriving, exciting places where people continue to come together.

Turning the Page: The New Chapter for High Streets

The High Street: How our town centres can bounce back from the retail crisis research project offers a hopeful message for high streets. By acknowledging the issues and implementing the suggested solutions, high streets can evolve and continue to play their pivotal role in bringing people together, regardless of the changing retail landscape.