Dramatic change needed to keep the High Street inclusive

Will there be a second wave of COVID? Are we ever getting out of this?

It seems that it is going to be a long time never, before we resume the 5 day a week commute. Homeworking is here to stay.

In fact, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors’ latest commercial property survey shows that almost all members – 93% – predicted their office space would shrink in the next two years.

So, with us all spending more time during the week within a 1-mile radius from our home, what does this mean for the High Street? Some experts are predicting a revival, but many developers are advocating reducing the number of shops and businesses. In a conference I attended recently 3 developers agreed that 30% of the high street needs to disappear in order to keep rents up. But if this happens, who will the High Street be catering to?

Alongside the thousands of newly home-bound commuters buying an oatmeal latte or oak-smoked ham from a local deli during their lunchbreak, there are thousands more who have lived and worked in these areas for years – many with caring responsibilities, health conditions, those who want to minimise their commute, or are generally less mobile, with a considerably lower income. These groups are seeing many more new faces in their daily grocery shop than they did 4 months ago, and their High Street is changing in front of them. Will the High Street remember them?

In some unlikely areas across London and beyond, we have seen the demand for artisan coffee shops, gift shops and boutiques grow exponentially. Higher rents are attractive to developers but will exclude most start-ups and most community-based uses. So the question must be “How are we going to ensure that as home-working becomes long-term, the High Street remains democratic and inclusive?”

To achieve that we need to give the locality more influence and we need to dilute the power of the market to decide what goes on in our High Street. We need to create a sensible mechanism for sharing the benefits and challenges of this mixed economy, one which allows space for everyone in the community to thrive and be together. 

With planning controls being rapidly diluted by government we believe that the only effective way that remains of ensuring an inclusive high street is to empower the local authority (or perhaps a more democratic version of a Business Improvement District) to be involved in rent-setting on the High Street. Although this will be anathema to free marketeers I believe this is the only way to create a High Street that truly reflects the community needs whilst also encouraging new business ideas.

COVID has been a strange awakener – it has shown us the importance of our neighbours, and how much we rely on key workers and local businesses. With our rediscovered appreciation of our locality let’s make a High Street that reflects what we have learnt – how to care for each other.

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