High Streets: Six Feet Under?

The government has given up on English High Streets. Despite all their show, sending Mary Portas out with the defibrillator to breathe life back into our ailing towns and cities, they now have the tape measures out and are dialling the undertakers.

Planning Minister, Nick Boles, is at the front of the cort??ge, hammer and nails in hand, professing that empty shops could be turned into housing. He is suggesting to councils across England that they should focus on prime streets, and consider alternative use for areas that fall outside what we once called the central business district. And all this is based on the supposed need to react to the way Britons shop – increasingly online.

But what if ‘online’ isn’t the big, bad wolf at the door? What if this is a knee jerk reaction to a digital revolution coinciding with the worst economic crisis since 1380 (apologies to Rowan Atkinson)? Our High Streets have been the mainstay of our shopping habits for well over a century. The doom-mongers would have you believe that we are all going to become hermits, triple or quadruple-screening as we reject all former human traits and habits and spurn high streets forever …

I am not a betting man. I’ve only ever won a chicken. But I wouldn’t put too much money on the Armageddon forecasters. Nick Boles is right. There should be greater freedom for councils over planning, and it would be no bad thing to encourage more folk to live in town and city centres. That certainly used to be the case.

Retail campaigner, Bill Grimsey (@BillGrimsey) tweeted: “36m adults – or 73% – were daily internet users in 2013, up from the 35% recorded in 2006. High St strategy needs to embrace technology.” And there’s the truth wrapped up in 140 characters. ‘Technology’ has been missing from almost every town and high street plan for many-a-year. Shoppers have embraced it. No, shoppers have craved it and swallowed it whole. Whereas towns, cities, high streets, shopping centres, retailers, councils, town teams, BIDs and Mary Portas … they’ve all missed that key point.

‘Digital’ – the online vulture that many think is circling the stumbling high street – can just as easily help the high street to get back on its feet. And here’s a thought. Traditional and online working hand-in-hand. Retailers and retail destinations providing customers with the ability to buy ‘stuff’ from their multiple screens, but collect in store whilst they meet friends, family or work colleagues.

Let’s be honest. No change is overnight, and certainly the fastest change seldom has anything to do with politicians, governments or councils. The rapid changes in retail are consumer driven – and consumers will continue to drive change. They are now. The smart towns, cities and retailers are already making the move … looking to engage customers through digital and social media channels at a local level, to engage with their community, to provide better service, to deliver what customers want and what shoppers need, 365 days of the year.

As I have said on many an occasion: the high street is not dead and buried. Some may be critically ill, but before the earth, ashes and dust are scattered, I am a firm believer in the eternal human desire and need to meet each other … and town and city centres are pretty good places to do just that. And when we meet, we’ll have our wallets and purses on us and, lo and behold, we shall spend money. Amen.


This Blog was first published on Huffington Post 2013.

16/08/2013 12:58 BST | Updated 16/10/2013 06:12 BST