On the 15th July, the UK Government published its new high street strategy for England “Build Back Better: High Streets”. I was asked by The Conversation to prepare a peice about the strategy, its links to Covid recovery and its chances of success.
The resulting Conversation piece has now been published and can be read in its entirety here. As ever with writing in that form, there are compromises and trying to explain compex issues simply in a short space can be a challenge (well, for me).
I don’t intend to simply reblog the piece here, as the layout and embedded visuals are part of what The Conversation does and add to my words. The final piece covers the myth of the “death of the high street” and the relationship between high streets and town centres and communities. It links to the changes brought on by the pandemic before considering the published strategy and its five priorities and the chances of success.
It will come as no surprise to readers of this blog that I think the strategy (if it can be called that) is missing key elements and in my view is a cosmetic exercise that does not either understand, nor address, the fundamental issues that underpin the changes we are seeing in high streets and town centres. We should reflect that in many places things are much better than the headlines would us believe. Those successes are often due to a focus on local businesses, local enterprise and engagement and making sure communities are engaged, involved and empowered. I don’t believe this strategy helps that.
The Prime Minister’s Foreward is worth a read to get a feel for the document. I would sum it up as “look on the bright side” (and after all almost 30% of the pages contain photos of high streets and town centres in full sun). He makes a plea for lots more pavement cafes as it rains more in Naples, Italy than it does in Nottingham and for communities to come together on a National High Streets Day to clean up their high streets. Add to that money for more bins and you can be forgiven for being concerned that some of the fundamental problems and steps needed are not on his radar. Then there is the real worry of the damage that could be done by some of the implementation of spending plans and permitted development rights (as the TCPA commissioned research noted this week).
But, you can make up your own minds. The strategy is here, my Conversation piece is here. As I covered much of the background before, I end with a summary of the concluding part of my Conversation piece
“The government’s new “build back better” high street strategy lays out five priorities: breathe new life into empty buildings, support high street businesses, improve the public realm, create safe and clean spaces, and celebrate pride in local communities.
It is hard to discern what is new in all this and what the government’s real commitments are. For a strategy aimed at, as it states on page three, “clearing away pointless red tape”, it is heavy on reviews to be undertaken and guidelines, codes and manuals to be adhered to. The strategy does contain some welcome elements. It focuses on tackling empty buildings and freeing up space on pavements and roads for cafes and restaurants to add vibrancy. It highlights the need for more green space and increased investment in historic buildings.
Conversely, it has very little to say on the fundamental issues: business rates and operational costs; the inequality of car parking charges between town centres and out-of-town developments; the costs related to other modes of transport and access. It does not address ownership models for retail spaces, or the wider costs and logistics of operating on the high street. And it does not mention support for the local, independent businesses hit by the pandemic. Instead, it lays out controversial ways in which the government is relaxing (and seeking to further relax) planning and building-use regulations.
Providing money to local authorities does not necessarily empower communities. Beyond noting the need for an emotional connection between people and place, however, the plan is silent about how to include and engage those communities.
Research has highlighted several crucial needs: focused spending on local businesses; tackling problematic behaviour by corporations and absentee landlords; a rethink of how development and operational and fiscal systems might encourage – and not penalise – high-street activity.
By not considering the retail high street in the context of the people it serves, and in omitting these crucial needs, this strategy appears mostly a cosmetic one. It revolves around short-term lets for buildings, cleaner spaces (more bins) and street parties. We know recovery – and a sustainable high street future – requires much more than that.”
The Conversation piece was reblogged on the 9th September 2021 in the Business Reporter