The way we shop, move, and socialise has changed, impacting what we want and need from our high streets. Ben Jones, Cities & Local Growth Unit, Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government, spoke at our The Future of British High Streets conference outlining how the government is supporting the high street through these changes.  

The pandemic has accelerated changes in high streets, with the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reporting that ‘In 2020, the amount spent in online retail sales increased by 46.1% when compared with 2019 as a whole, the largest annual increase since 2008’ [1]. 

eCommerce is often blamed for the death of the high street, and while it is a factor, it is “not all about retail on the high street” [2]. However, “the death of the high streets is not the same as retail, what people want and expect from high streets is different now” [2]. High streets should be an “oasis for community activity and cohesion” [2].  

Ben laid out four features that we now look for in our high streets [2]: 

  • Experiences are becoming an increasingly important reason to visit a high street – from personalised customer service to events and concerts.​ 
  • CommunitySpaces that encourage social interaction will also continue to bring people to the high street.​ 
  • Mixed-use, people want to see more variety on their high street, including health and leisure services.​ 
  • Strong Leadership underpins thriving high streets at the local level 

Recognising the need for high streets to adapt to survive, the High Streets Expert Panel, led by Sir John Timpson was convened to create a report on  the key issues facing the high street and to identify proposals for regeneration. The interim findings highlighted 3 main recommendations which informed the 2018 autumn budget [2]. 

  1. Future High Streets Fund​ 

Many High streets reflect how people moved around in the 1950s and need to be restructured. However, many local authorities don’t have the resources to make such changes. The Future High Streets Fund aims to enable councils to make these changes. 

  1. High Streets Task Force​ 

The report recommended a hub to support local initiatives. A high street task force was proposed to provide dependent, quality leadership 

  1. Short-term solutions 

The report highlighted the need to draw people onto High street, he proposed a national High street perfect day. This would be a day in which everything would be run to the highest standard to showcase what each local area has to offer 

The Government launched Our Plan for the High Street as part of the 2018 budget, which included £675 million for a Future High Streets Fund [3]. This was later followed by an announcement on 27 July 2019 committing to a £3.6 billion Towns Fund which included an additional £325 million for the Future High Streets Fund [3]. This fund aims to provide a holistic package of interventions that can reinvent the High street and make it a real destination[2].  

At the time Communities Secretary, The Rt Hon Robert Jenrick MP said:  

“The role of the high street has always evolved. We want to support that change and make sure that they are the beating heart of their local community high-quality quality housing and leisure in addition to shops and restaurants. This investment will help us build back better and make town centres a more attractive place to live, work and visit.” [3] 

Ben broke down ‘Our Plan for the High Street’ for us, outlining how the Government has implemented the recommendations of the High Streets Expert Panel:  

  • Future High Streets Fund. Funding from the Future High Streets Fund aims to help 72 areas in England ‘recover from the pandemic and deliver ambitious regeneration plans’ to drive long term growth [3]. Local government is working with the task force to help communities bring forward regeneration proposals that the Future High Streets Fund will co-finance [3]. 
  • High Street Task Force. The high streets task force “aims to address recommendation that there should be a central resource to access support to deliver local solutions” [2]. Through online resources, training and hands-on support, the force is there to support ‘communities and local government to transform their high streets’ [4]. Following the impact of Covid-19 they have refocused their efforts to help ‘place leaders take the most effective action now and build capacity for recovery’ [4].  
  • ‘Open Doors’ Pilot. This pilot was carried out across 5 sites. Through creating a register of empty commercial properties, it aimed to provide a matchmaking service, pairing up landlords and local community groups. This enabled community groups to repurpose these properties for a short space of time. The community groups were provided with space while making sure that the property remained looked after. The evaluation of the programme found benefits for both community groups and landlords, arguing that ‘the programme enabled community groups to deliver much-needed services to their users and build socially stronger communities.’ [5]  

The Government has also introduced a package of measures to support businesses on the high street​ due to the ongoing impact of Covid-19. The package includes; Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme, business rates relief, VAT deferrals., measures to support commercial tenants, ​and a £50m Reopening High Streets Safely Fund [3]​. 

While we are unaware of how the High street may look after the Covid-19 outbreak ends we can start to plan for a post-covid high street. You can explore the Task Force advice on regenerating thigh street as we emerge from Covid-19, and looking further into the future, here.  

Sources:

[1] Office for National Statistics. 2020. Retail sales, Great Britain: December 2020 [Accessed 10/02/2021] 

[2] Jones, B. 2020. The Future of British High Streets: Manchester Conference 

[3] Gov.uk. 2020. £830 million funding boost for high streets. [Accessed 10/02/2021] 

[4] Highstreettaskforce.org.uk  [Accessed 10/02/2021] 

[5] Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government. 2020. Open Doors Pilot Programme Evaluation report. [Accessed 10/02/2021] 

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eCommerce has posed a threat to the High Street for some time, but Covid has provided another challenge. How can the High Street adapt?

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