Can the High Street be saved?

04 Dec 19

‘The real difference is the way these spaces are used; the ‘High Street’ is now a place to do things. It is a destination – where we stop shopping online and become social again’.

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This summer I went on a staycation through the English countryside and villages. Rounding a corner, I was suddenly shocked by a sight that has been lost for so long that it has been declared … DEAD!

Behold a High Street!

It may sound dramatic, but we all yearn for a romanticised version of the quintessential High Street. Millions of tourists arrive every year to find one (I used to be one of them!). It is a mythical place where Miss Marple gets her morning kippers; Doc Martin actively avoids…everyone; and Inspector Barnaby is investigating murder 3,429.

Streets are lined with quaint stone cottages surrounding the village green, with a ‘Purveyor of Fine Foods’, hairdresser, Post Office, estate agent, solicitor, tea rooms and pub. They are the hub of their local communities – and tourists flock to them like Disneyland.

Most of these quintessential ‘High Streets’ are surviving though because they are catering to a different demand than their urban cousins. The High Street is not dead, it’s simply retreated to the country.

The urban High Street

What of High Streets in our towns though? Sorry to say, they are struggling, and have been for quite some time. With few exceptions, urban spaces are dominated by concrete and glass, with treeless parades of shops.

But the real difference is the way these spaces are used. We shop online for everything from groceries to candles, books to sofas. The ‘High Street’ is now a place to do things: write a report in a coffee shop, go to the gym, have a pint with friends, get your nails done and then meet family for dinner. It is a destination – where we stop shopping online and become social again.

Although the NPPF requires flexible policies that meet the changing needs of our urban communities, in reality, Local Plans are years in the making (and years in the changing). Retail planning policies haven’t changed for years and are simply rolled from one version of a Local Plan to another. Those policies simply aren’t flexible enough now to keep up with twenty-first century changes.

The future?

What is the solution? In the short term very little other than a frank and open discussion with the Council. Now is the time to introduce policy that is dynamic and allows flexibility for future uses in our High Streets whatever they may be – electric vehicle charging hubs, urban gardens, dark kitchens. We should not still be discussing this problem in ten years’ time.

Westminster City Council are ahead of the game and have recently submitted their Local Plan for examination. It is encouraging to see the winds of change blowing gently as the Plan clearly recognises the need for flexible commercial hubs to compete with online retail. Yes, A1 uses (shops/retail) are still the priority, but the Plan allows non-A1 uses in a limited way in an effort to provide some flexibility in the planning system.

Let’s hope this is just the start of a new trend for our High Streets.

Sandy Scott Senior Planner,Planning

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