High streets are an expression of local character and the community. From farmers’ markets to shopping centres, they contribute to placemaking and provide vital amenities and public space. However, many of London’s high streets are failing as physical retail struggles to adapt to our rapidly changing shopping habits.
With each Future London Leaders cohort, candidates go on themed site visits, giving them food for thought for their Proposal for London at the end of the course. With the theme of high streets and markets, candidates’ first visit was to Tooting high street.
While businesses have been disappearing from most of the UK’s high streets, Tooting painted a different picture. With a vacancy rate of only 4%, compared with 10% nationwide, Tooting High Street is home to a wide range of businesses that support a vibrant day and night-time economy. The large local student population and St George’s Hospital’s 2,000 staff provide Tooting with a diverse community that contributes to the success of its busy high street.
Diversity alone, however, would not directly translate into a resilient high street. The leadership of the people that live and work in Tooting are essential ingredients for its success. Field trip host, Brian Albuquerque, Tooting Town Centre Manager, highlighted the importance of LB Wandsworth founding the Town Centre Partnership Board. The board brings businesses and organisations like TfL and the police together to create a more coherent high street and to manage risks and change.
Embracing diversity and thinking holistically means you have to work hard to break down silos and engage with different groups with different priorities. Adam Hutchings, Principal Planner (Policy) and a Future of London Alumnus, stressed the importance of being nice to people, even when there are disagreements. Genuine respect to all is often overlooked when creating trust and working together for a better high street.
Tooting Market is another example of how Tooting’s diversity combined with vision and leadership from key stakeholders contributes to its success. Nine years ago, after many years of decline, the Market changed ownership. The new owners diversified the offer, avoiding the trend to restructure as a food court, meaning that national chains like Franco Manca sit alongside long-established local vendors like a butchers and fishmongers.
Roi Mengelgrein, Tooting Market Manager, explained how the balance of market traders is achieved through pricing units on traditional criteria such as location and size, as well as type of business. This farsighted approach helps smaller outlets and retailers, who would otherwise have been priced out. Collaboration and well-maintained working relationships with long-established traders are vital in maintaining a successful, sustainable market that can adapt with changing times.
Adapting to change is in fact a characteristic of Tooting. As put by Lorinda Freint, Business & Enterprise Manager, LB Richmond & LB Wandsworth, managing change and town management are synonyms. While change is inevitable, understanding how high streets change enables greater opportunities for fresh thinking and new ideas.
The field trip to Tooting High Street, was the first visit for Future London Leaders 23. Candidates will present their Proposals for London on the topic of high streets and markets on 18 March – register here to attend.