Just got back in from a bout of Christmas shopping along North Berwick High Street where, despite a biting and doggedly cold West wind, the shops are ablaze, the Xmas lights colourful, with bobble hats and buggies jostling along the narrow pavements in a sure sign of a healthy season for the shopkeepers.
But, according to a recent retail report by Mary Portas (the “Queen of Shops” in a recent TV series), all is not well and her report is not shy about saying it:
“I believe that our high streets have reached a crisis point. Unless urgent action is taken, much of Britain will lose, irretrievably, something that is fundamental to our society, and which has real social and economic worth to our communities. With town-centre vacancy rates doubling over the past two years and total consumer spend away from our high streets now over 50 per cent, the need to take action has never been clearer”
She predicts that high streets could disappear forever; pretty much everyone agrees with her. From the Mirror to the Torygraph, the story has been picked up as this tale of woe goes the media rounds accompanied by much hand-wringing. Mary is not all gloom; she has pointed out what she regards as examples of good practice like Barnsley market and laying out her own vision for high streets.
It is fair to say that the signs are not good for the classic high street as the principal shopping destination for everything from detergent to deep freezes. The rise of car ownership, of out-of-town malls, of hypermarkets and now of internet retail has reshaped the way goods are bought and sold and the return of the greengrocer and gents clothier should not be expected soon. The statistics in Mary’s report underscore this:
- Highest vacancy rates: Dudley (29%), West Bromwich (28%), Hartlepool (27%) and Dewsbury (27%). These are mid-scale towns but even their size hasn’t helped
- The lowest: Falmouth, Walthamstow, Clapham Junction and Cirencester (all 6.6%).
- Foot-fall down 4.1% first week of December, compared to 2010.
- High street like-for-like sales fell 1.6% in November compared to 2010.
- Food sales up 1.5% but non-food items fell 2.1%.
- Online, phone and mail-order sales up 8.6% in the same period.
- Online sales now account for nearly 10% of total retail sales.
A survey conducted among Torygraph readers—not the most communitarian selection of people to ask—still came away with a resounding seven in ten using their high streets and keen on having them survive:
So, the message is that, even though many people vote with their feet when it comes to shopping, the high street is still valued—as much for its pleasant, friendly surroundings as for its more subtle role of providing a community focus and social cohesion. So, other than today’s communal media wail in response to Mary’s report, what can be done?
Clearly, there is a critical mass of large ‘anchor’ shops when it comes to competing with the malls and hypermarkets. Stirling, Falkirk and Perth all provide good examples of how judicious redevelopment on an ambitious scale, with large shops, ample parking and pleasant surroundings can keep the customers coming back. Examples of similar-sized towns that have failed to do so are legion, including Motherwell and Dunfermline.
But even smaller towns can compete, especially if they have some major factor going for them. St Andrews does well because of students and tourists; Cupar survives by being just far enough away from anywhere else—as do Biggar and Berwick, Alness and Kirkwall, Kelso and Kirkcudbright. Peebles makes a real effort to draw tourists and offer them unusual shops not found elsewhere, whereas Pitlochry gives itself over the the more blatant tourist draw that characterises the Royal Mile.
What we need to learn from smaller towns with robust high streets is how their offering has changed. People will go to Iceland for the month’s shop and the Gyle for new shoes and get their iPhone off the internet. But apart from the echoing soullessness of that, there are niches in which small high street retail can not only survive, but flourish. East Lothian Council is in the middle of its own analysis of what makes North Berwick shops flourish while Tranent and Dunbar—of comparable size and increasingly similar demographics—has shops that are struggling, despite investment.
The key factor is unusual offerings; look at Peebles or St Andrews or North Berwick and you find specialist shops with things hard to find in any chain. Then you need to have additional attractions that bring day trippers (not just tourists) for a browse or a wander. Add in several comfortable cafes and restaurants; a little historic architecture and/or places to picnic; perhaps a charity shop or three to hunt for bargains and you find that even some traditional-type shops—women’s shoes, delicatessens, quality butchers—can make a good fist of it too. It’s a convenient and quirky mixture that seems to work.
There is probably no formula and any high street within a few miles of a major retail park will have its work cut out to survive. But, the alternative of trying to form a sense of community without the everyday catalyst of a vibrant high street must make it in everyone’s interest to try The pride people of St Andrews show in their town is not matched by those in Dalgety Bay, even though there’s little to choose in demographics and affluence.
For me, we’re still learning how to build communities, not just houses; without a high street, that is so much more difficult.