Death of the High Street

Last night’s Tonight Programme on ITV1, titled ‘Death of the High Street’ is worth a watch ( ). At 25 minutes it could barely scratch the surface, but was a short and succinct summary of the well known issues affecting UK High streets – average vacancy rates have tripled in the last three years – and possible solutions. Starting in Rotherham, suffering a terribly high retail vacancy rate (the huge Meadowhall complex is just 4 miles away), the programme covered some of the issues that are causing high street retailers to struggle: high rents, council rates, parking charges and competition from online retailers and supermarkets.

The programme moved from Rotherham onto Skipton, the market town in Yorkshire which hosted Action for Market Towns‘ annual convention a couple of years ago and was held up as a town bucking the downward trends.  I do a lot of work with AMT, and they represent a huge range of market and small towns. Many of them are thriving – but many are facing challenges. What do successful, thriving, small and market towns, and high streets, have in common? I suppose if the question was easy to answer, we wouldn’t have a struggling high street!

And whilst we know it’s no longer sustainable for towns and cities to be dependent on so-called ‘retail-led regeneration’, we also know how vital it is to have access to thriving town centres – the hubs of communities. It’s really easy to focus on decline and challenges – and easy to see the many reasons behind decline – if we actually want to do something about it we need to focus on some solutions.

The Government-commissioned Portas Review – which aims to identify what the government, local authorities and businesses can do to promote the development of more “prosperous and diverse high streets” – is due to makes its recommendations this autumn. The Death of the High Street programme did feature Mary Portas and it sounded as though she will be recommending several ideas long championed by Action for Market Towns and put forward by a joint submission to her review, led by Urban Pollinators and featuring input from AMT, the Empty Shops Network, Incredible Edible Todmorden, Meanwhile Space CIC, MyCard, Research 00:/, Res Publica and Wigan Plus. Ideas such as:

  • innovative local loyalty schemes which promote local shopping and put money back in to towns,
  • independent retailers working together to create virtual local department stores,
  • the use of Benchmarking so towns know where to focus their efforts to improve,

can all make a difference. More on these ideas, here: and highlights from this joint submission, here:

Of course, the planning framework will have an enormous effect on town centres and high streets too, and sadly most of the current NPPF debate seems to be missing any discussion of how the Government’s planning changes may effect town centres. Alison Eardley has blogged on the NPPF here.

Meanwhile, a few further recommended resources and links regarding town centre revival:

It’s going to be interesting to read the Portas Review recommendations – and, of course, to watch the Goverment’s response!

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