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Retail Won’t Save The High Street, But People Can

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St ann's Square Manchester retail
St Ann's Square, Manchester

As high streets and shopping centres have gone quiet across the UK, many questions have been asked about how to get shoppers back into shops. But to save retail, perhaps we shouldn’t be trying to save retail at all. 

The real question that should be asked, according to Savills Director for National Retail Planning Jeremy Hinds, is: What can I do to make my high street more interesting and relevant than anywhere else? The answer could be to add a flavour of continental Europe to bring people back in.

The problems facing the high street

“The challenges facing the high street are multiple,” Hinds said. “It is not possible to isolate any individual cause to the sudden and rapid decline in the attraction of centres. Although the advent of digital retailing is often cited as the cause, the truth is that this is far too simplistic an analysis.”

The Centre for Cities’ report City centres: past, present and future concludes that the biggest cause of town centre decline is a lower level of investment from high-skilled businesses. If a city or town fails to attract businesses, the city as a whole loses out on investment.

In contrast, the report highlights city centres that are thriving, such as Manchester and Leeds, where a resurgence in “urban working” has increased the number of people in the centre. “Crucially, policy must look beyond the retail sector,” it said. “Successful high streets are an outcome, not the cause, of successful city centre economies.”

Hinds argued that the framework piecing together town centres has been creaking for a long time. The mechanisms that exist between planning bodies, landlords, architects and other stakeholders are vast, from valuation assumptions and planning permission to development plans and legal interpretations.

“Put together, the infrastructure is byzantine,” he said. “It should be no surprise that as an entity, the infrastructure is slow, almost unresponsive. No wonder it lags behind the timescales of change that mark out the essential characteristics of digital retailing.”

Focusing specifically on retail, models for high streets and shopping centres have been out of date for some time. The cunning plan of securing a department store anchor and assuming other retailers will follow quickly behind, attracting a wave of shoppers, is not so cunning anymore. Consumers, who can shop online, crave an experience. They need a reason to visit their town centre that makes it different from every other town centre.

Oxford Road, looking north, Manchester
Oxford Road, looking north

Put the public realm first

There is a growing argument that residential property should play a greater part in town centres and high streets. Urban residential property provides a host of people who want to go out and enjoy the dynamic lifestyle city-centre living can bring.  

It’s a simple equation; retailers need footfall and to get that footfall, developers need to create an environment that attracts people, Hinds said. To achieve this, investment in public realm is needed.  

“Footfall has gone down because people are not investing in town centres, keeping them alive,” said Hinds. “The high streets of the UK should be individual reflections of the history, culture and geography of the wider towns that they serve and support. There should be no such thing as simply ‘the high street’ — the concept should be ‘our high street’.”

Investing in public realm and curating a mix of residential and commercial property is a tactic used to better effect in continental Europe, where the downturn in physical retail has been arguably less pronounced.

Walk around a town centre in Germany, for example, and you are far more likely to see an effective mix of ground-floor retail and food and beverage, with apartments above, all centred around an open space. Both the UK and U.S. are looking to continental Europe to see how the right mix can be generated.

The UK’s new urban destinations

When property owners and developers are successful at attracting people to live in city centres, carefully curated retail as part of a residential scheme can help to establish a new urban destination. This creates a winning situation for all those involved, increasing the value and occupancy of the residential while getting people back into stores.

Several major city centres in the UK are already getting this treatment, Hinds said. Manchester, for example, is ahead of the curve. Its new urban areas have been appearing for the last few years, such as the Northern Quarter and Spinningfields, where residential and retail work seamlessly together to create a vibrant, identifiable destination that didn’t exist before.

By relaxing certain planning laws to allow development and creating these ‘go to’ areas, the city has done the right thing — at just the right time.

Of course, no one is saying that to get people shopping in town centres again, we need to get rid of shops. But there’s an element of truth in that line of thought. The high streets of the future could have a far more dynamic mix, painting a true reflection of the communities they serve.

This feature was produced by Bisnow Branded Content in collaboration with Savills Manchester. Bisnow news staff was not involved in the production of this content.