KT Long Read: Fixing new lows on Britain's high street
The rise of online shopping in recent years posed a serious challenge when the Covid-19 pandemic hit
The magic was still there on London’s Oxford Street and Regent Street before the Covid-19 pandemic hit. The rise of online shopping in recent years posed a serious challenge, but the two iconic streets in the West End seemed immune. It used to be a challenge to walk along the pavements bustling with excited shoppers, particularly during the summer holiday months, when a large number of tourists, some foreign celebrities and power elites would swoop on the retail centres — you could hear almost every foreign language, except English. But cut to October 2021 and the picture is not the same: the throngs of shoppers are missing, the music and vibrancy that the two streets are known for are toned down. More evident is the absence of some well-known brand names that collapsed during the pandemic: across Britain, not only have footfall numbers dwindled in retail stores, but tens of thousands of shops have closed, rendering hundreds of thousands of people jobless. The high streets in London alone are estimated to have suffered a major setback, with a loss of over £5 billion in retail sales in the last year.
Referring to a centrally-located street with several shops as a ‘high street’ is a typical English conception dating to the time, centuries ago, when the word was used to describe something superior or exalted: highway, High Sheriff, high commissioner, high priest. Today, high street is a metonym for the retail sector: there are nearly 3,000 roads in Britain called ‘high street’ and over 2,000 more with a variation, such as High Street West or Upper High Street. Many have evolved around monuments, serving communities beyond the retail sector in the form of public libraries, children and youth services, offices as well as housing (buildings with flats above shops on the ground floor along the streets is a common sight). Many shops are located in historic buildings: the shopping streets in Oxford, Cambridge, Canterbury, Winchester, York and Chester are good examples.
High streets also highlight the idea of place and identity to individuals and communities; they are embedded in the very culture and heritage of Britain, lending social value as well as transactional value in their economic activities. For many, growing up and visiting the high street with family or friends for shopping, leisure and other activities is a part of the British way of life.
The story of high streets includes economic as well as social and cultural aspects. The high street is often described as the life and soul of communities across Britain, crucial to creating jobs, nurturing small businesses and driving local and regional economies. Says Virendra Sharma, senior Labour MP for Ealing Southall: “What I love most about Southall Broadway is the people; it still, to this day, is the heart of our community with people shopping, stopping to talk, and having tea or something to eat. I can’t walk down the Broadway without someone stopping me to talk about something personal or political; it is a living space that exudes energy.”
Generations of Asians who grew up in and around the west London suburb fondly recall going to Broadway to visit the Himalaya Palace Cinema (now a shopping arcade) or the range of restaurants and shops selling items associated with the Asian way of life. There is a similar sense of loyalty and pride in the community around high streets such as Soho Road in Birmingham, Belgrave Road in Leicester and Brick Lane in east London.
Nerve centre of communities
But the way Britons shop and communities use their high streets has changed in recent decades, with official research highlighting growth in shopping online, people making fewer big shopping trips, shopping ‘little and more often’, and establishing more out-of-town shopping malls — all of which has changed the nature of what makes a high street successful. There is, thus, much concern about the future of high streets, often debated in the House of Commons. Challenges faced by high street retailers and associated problems of town centres have seen the creation of several funding schemes to redevelop them and support local economic growth. Retail groups believe high business rate liabilities have been a major cause of high street retailers struggling during the late 2010s, calling for reductions. The debate also includes suggestions for an ‘online sales tax’, based on the idea that companies selling principally online tend to use more warehouse premises and less high street retail space, leading to lower business rate bills for online companies.
A dedicated Future High Streets Fund was announced in the 2018 budget, with the then Chancellor Philip Hammond stating that “if Britain’s high streets are to remain at the centre of our community life, they will need to adapt”. A key element of the fund is preserving heritage on high streets.
This has two elements: helping restore historic high street properties through Historic England — a public body that helps people care for, enjoy and celebrate England’s historic environment — and equipping communities with their own resources to put historic buildings back into economic use (for example, as residential buildings, new work spaces or cultural venues). As part of the fund, Heritage England has been delivering the £95 million government-funded High Streets Heritage Action Zone programme to unlock the potential of high streets across England and breathe new life into the economic, social and cultural hubs. It has produced a range of research reports on historical and other aspects of high streets, including on the development of unique shopping arcades and shop-fronts over the centuries, some of which survive to this day.
Susie Barson, architectural investigator at Historic England, notes that it is in the period of the late 18th and early 19th centuries that the appearance of high streets as places dedicated to shopping became established. An early example is London’s Regent Street, laid out by architect John Nash in the first decades of the 19th century. Covered arcades and passages flanked by shops appeared in the area in 1815, the Burlington Arcade; others appeared in Leeds and Norwich, taking their cue from the ‘galleria’ in Milan and the arcades of Paris. Single shops from this period were characterised by a bow window, or a pair of bow windows with a central entrance, made of timber with small panes of glass, as it was still quite expensive to make glass at that time.
She says: “Throughout the 19th century, shops got bigger and wider, with stronger materials such as cast iron being used to form shop-fronts, and expanses of plate glass inserted so that people could look in at the wares on display. Architectural finishes such as pilasters, columns, capitals and architraves were used by the builders. Many survive in our high streets today and it is these features that we are helping to bring out and restore to their former glory. The next big innovation in shopping comes across from the continent — the department store. Early examples are the Bon Marche in Brixton (1877) and later Marshall and Snelgrove’s store in Oxford Street. These stores were very popular, particularly with women, as there was a variety of merchandise, no pressure to buy, and fixed prices, obviating the need to barter and haggle.”
The conservation efforts
Barson notes that not every high street has a Harrods or a Selfridges but many have the chain stores that arrived in the 1920s and 1930s, such as former Woolworths, Burtons, Bata (shoe shops), Boots (chemists). Banks, libraries, police stations and post offices, another distinctive part of the English high street, also had their own specialist architects giving the buildings a unique style. The post-war years saw the arrival of the shopping mall from America, the precinct and the superstores, as commerce exploded with mass production and economic prosperity in the late 1950s and
1960s after the austere war years. From the 1980s, she adds, the decline of the high street began as out-of-town shopping centres, accessed by private cars, began to dominate shopping habits of the British public.
The decline was accelerated by the economic crash of 2008, and exacerbated more recently by high business rates and the
popularity of online shopping. According to Historic England, nearly 48 per cent of the nation’s retail stock was built before 1919 and the loss of business occupiers in the historic buildings places them at risk — undermining the character, identity and viability of the high street.
“But it is not all doom and gloom. Many high street vacant shops have seen a rise in pop-ups or start-up businesses, repair shops, nurseries, surgeries, community kitchens and craft shops, often run by women. Since the pandemic, when people were forced to work from home, they used their local independent shops more, and began to value their neighbourhoods. This coming together, identifying the needs of businesses and the community, has been a big part of the High Streets Heritage Action Zone initiative. Come back in four years’ time and see what has been achieved on our high streets…The challenge is to allow the business to flourish without overly compromising the character and original historic fabric of the building. This is where conservation architects and designers come together to work out practical, non-invasive solutions: it is amazing what can be done,” Barson adds.
Under the High Streets Heritage Action Zone programme, more than 60 high streets have been offered funding to give them a new lease of life. The lead partners in each place (mostly local authorities) work with Historic England to develop and deliver schemes that transform and restore disused and dilapidated buildings into new homes, shops, work places and community spaces, improving the public realm (the project was recently completed in Coventry). Says Louise Brennan, Historic England’s regional director in the Midlands: “We are funding all sorts of historic buildings on the high street, from hotels to hairdressers. We are also funding the repair and refurbishment of buildings that are currently empty to help encourage new users. In Leicester, the scheme is focused on Granby Street and Church Street, both of which have diverse owners and businesses. For example, we are grant-aiding the fabulous ISKCON building on Granby Street, which started life as a bank and is now a centre for the Hare Krishna movement. It’s a beautiful building with a great community-focused use and a real asset to that part of the high street.”
There is also a cultural element to the programme, working with artists and creative organisations local to the high streets and a series of national cultural commissions, including a large-scale outdoor arts celebration of the high street and a four-year photography commission to document the changing face of the high street. Projects include exhibitions in empty shop windows, street art trails, poetry penned by local people appearing on pavements, and residents voicing animations.
Also in the cultural pipeline are initiatives such as ‘high street tales’: storytellers capturing the everyday magic of high streets, working with local people to record local legends to create a set of short stories about today’s high street; ‘connect commissions’: an open call for five artists to propose projects that join and connect high streets that may be distant geographically, but close in experiences and spirit; ‘outdoor arts’: a large-scale outdoor celebration of the high street, happening across multiple regions and high streets, delivered in the summer of 2023; and a photography commission: a four-year photography project to creatively document the changing face of the nation’s high streets coming to a conclusion in 2024.
Says Duncan Wilson, chief executive of Historic England: “Whether it’s a medieval market town, or a post-war city centre, every high street in England has a distinctive history that can be harnessed to help it achieve a prosperous future. Investing in heritage delivers good results for people — it means looking after and celebrating the places at the heart of our communities, and the buildings and public spaces which define their character. This investment for our High Streets Heritage Action Zone scheme will unlock the potential of these precious high streets and help them thrive again.”
Sounds of the future
A recently unveiled cultural project is ‘High Street Sound Walks’ — an audio experience of six English high streets. Created by nine contemporary artists, the six new sound walks are centered on Redruth (Cornwall), Reading (Berkshire), Great Yarmouth (Norfolk), Grantham (Lincolnshire), Barrow (Cumbria) and Hull (Yorkshire); each is described as a distinctive, immersive soundscape taking listeners on a journey of discovery. The artists developed the sound walks by visiting and recording in the high streets, creating unique audio records of the sites, their inhabitants and their histories, available on Historic England’s website since September 10.
Historic England also attracted many responses to another project that ran from September 20 to 26, asking people ‘What do you love about your high street?’ People were asked to share their views over social media: whether it is the memory of the place they bought their first-ever album, a shop that has become part of weekend routine, or a place people go to meet friends and family.
Their stories will come together to build a national picture of what makes high streets so special and to learn what matters most when it comes to their future. A poll commissioned by Historic England suggested that 73 per cent people said their local high street is important to them, 54 per cent feel pessimistic about their local high street’s future, 40 per cent feel motivated to take action to help their high street’s future, and 71 per cent said they feel personal interactions are important when visiting the high street. Having crowd-sourced the information, a programme of discussions and commissions is to be created to further explore what high streets could be — and look like — in the future.
Wilson adds: “What I love about high streets is how they bring people together. Throughout history, high streets have been our gathering places; centres of commerce, conversation and community. They help make where we live special. Nearly half of all high streets were built before 1919. They are one of the most visited and enjoyed types of heritage in the country, a connection to our past and a key to our future. We know they are struggling, and their future is uncertain, and we think this is a timely moment to ask people about their future and consider the part we can all play in supporting these important places.”
(Prasun is a journalist based in London. He tweets @PrasunSonwalkar.)
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