Is the UK high street facing an inevitable ‘death spiral’?

Research suggests that people today feel lonely even when in a crowd. So why not turn the high street into a welcoming space?

By Sean Carey

The fanfare that surrounded last year’s government-commissioned report on the UK high street continues to sound. The Department for Communities and Local Government has just announced it is to launch a competition to choose 12 towns to become “Portas Pilots”, named after report author and retail guru Mary Portas. A fund of £1m will be shared between the winning local authorities to spruce up “unloved and unused” high streets.

But another retail expert, Phil Wrigley, chair of Majestic Wine and LXB Retail Properties, says it has come far too late. While he awards top marks to Portas for the “right diagnosis”, he warns she has signed the “wrong prescription”.

In a lecture at Oxford University, Wrigley claimed that the UK high street was in a “death spiral”. Why? Because the combined powers of supermarkets, shopping malls and the internet are squeezing the life out of it. And he thinks it would be much better for all concerned to accept the market’s verdict. “Retailing will never be the same again, but there is much to be gained from facing up to this fundamental, and irreversible, truth,” he said. “In doing so, we might just create the space in which we can re-cast and revitalise our town centre communities.”

Around 14% of town-centre shops are vacant, according to the Local Data Company, and more retailers look set to follow brands such as Peacocks, La Senza and Blacks Leisure into administration.

Leaving aside the question of how many high-street businesses are failing because of the lack of aggregate demand in the economy, Wrigley’s solution to the problem is superficially appealing: the government should relax planning laws so that shops and even car parks can be converted for residential use. If people return to town centres, as residents not visitors, he believes, the effect will be far-reaching.

But Wrigley fails to mention either that only 10% of current consumption occurs through the internet, or that many high streets (in and outside metropolitan areas) are doing well because they are offering consumers – and not just those with reasonable levels of disposable income – something different. Allowing housing development in areas that are currently having a hard time means that retail and other spaces will be lost forever. Far better, as Portas recommended, that landlords show greater flexibility – including lowering rents.

Another possibility is that local authorities encourage pop-up shops, which allow entrepreneurs to try out new ideas without being locked into long-term commitments.

Wrigley predicts that by 2025 shopping malls and leisure centres will have conceptually and geographically converged to become “leisure villages in which we take brief holidays”. But we have to take his position as chief executive of Jersey-based LXB Retail Properties into account when he turns into retail’s Mystic Meg. It is surely no coincidence that his company specialises in out-of-town and edge-of-town retail parks; put simply, he has a story to tell and he is looking for an audience.

In a 2004 paper on town-centre management, Georgina Whyatt, an academic at Oxford Brookes University, observed that over the past 200 years activities such as washing clothes and drawing water, once carried out on a communal basis in public places, are now performed exclusively in the home. This has resulted in considerable change to the social and cultural landscape in the world’s advanced economies.

Especially in many urban areas, where the population is socially and geographically mobile, relationships are often based more on friendship than kinship. In other words, the open societies of the advanced economies create relationships that are optional and voluntary, but are therefore emotionally thinner.

One of the consequences, according to Whyatt, is that many people feel isolated even when in a crowd. “Increasing numbers of consumers are looking for a system of purchasing goods and services that support social interaction of the communal type,” she claims. This simply isn’t available in supermarkets, shopping malls or through the internet.

But high streets and similar spaces can provide all sorts of commercial and non-commercial opportunities; not just products and services, but experiences too.

Which, if Wrigley’s prophecy about the future of consumer behaviour turns out to be true, raises an interesting question: why, if “brief holidays” and other types of communal activities can take place in the out-of-town leisure villages, can’t they take place in traditional high streets as well?

Local authorities should not accept uncritically that “unloved and unused” high streets have no future other than increasing the housing stock.

Dr Sean Carey is a visiting lecturer at the University of Roehampton Business School

* Published in print edition on 17 February 2012

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