The ‘death of the high street’ is a phrase that has been thrown around for at least the last ten years to describe the slow wane in popularity of town centre high streets in the UK. The increasing use of online shopping, rising business rates and a long period of austerity and stagnant growth have created a climate that has hastened the decline of the once-popular pastime of high street shopping.

The COVID-19 pandemic has in many ways sped up this process, with shopping in smaller high street shops becoming increasingly difficult with social distancing rules and many hesitant to visit areas where they’re more likely to come into contact with lots of people.

However, this doesn’t have to be the end of the story. Much can be done to ensure high streets remain places that are popular and well-loved by the communities they serve. Eden Musyoki looks at several ways we can reverse the fortunes of the UK high street.

It’s more than just shopping

There was a time when retail completely dominated the high street. However, the times are changing and, to ensure their futures, high streets must become destinations in their own right. High streets need to once again become the place where people come together to meet friends and engage in community activities. More needs to be done to make high streets the focal point of community identity and local pride.  Transport planning has a role to play, with pedestrianised areas better suited for pop-up markets or live performances.

Increased community involvement

Local communities are best placed to play a role in shaping priorities around their high street. They have a long-term interest in the future of the place and because of this, they have insights into what their high streets need. Local communities should be used like the valuable resource they are to decide what changes need to be made to how a high street is used. Innovative online platforms like Participatr make it particularly easy to capture ideas from local communities.

Greater partnerships with local authorities

There is a misconception that local authorities set the high business rates that are hampering many high street businesses. This, however, isn’t the case, as business rates are set by central government. Despite this, local authorities still have a huge part to play in ensuring the future of their high streets. Local authorities can assist with the community asset transfer of local authority buildings into community hands that can enable local people to bring new life to the high street, or bring a range of public services together under one roof to create a critical mass of customers visiting the high street. They can also play a brokerage role in connecting community organisations with vacant properties where landlords are willing to engage and see their properties occupied rather than left empty.

Make it accessible!

Above all else, high streets need to be easily accessible or people simply won’t be able to get to them. To do this, we need to reconsider their design and the allocation of space. Pedestrianisation is an effective way of making a high street more accessible and appealing, allowing people to enjoy the now larger space without the noise and smell normally associated with traffic on a busy high road. If this isn’t possible, introducing shared space design principles in the design of pavements and roads can promote a more open feel and a more cooperative relationship between pedestrians, motorists and other road users.

Our client CKDelta has used anonymised data to produce a Recovery Index that provides an insight into how the UK is recovering from COVID-19. In it, they discuss the drastic impact the pandemic has had on the retail industry in the UK. They do, however, highlight a trend that indicates there are opportunities for traditional high streets that destination retail centres won’t be able to take advantage of, as many people are electing to stay local and shop in their communities. This offers hope that high streets may yet make a comeback despite all the challenges they face.