Communities of Practice: High streets

This is a guest post by Laura Davy, Head of High Streets at LB Lambeth and FoL Alumni Rep, and Leanne Keltie, Programme Manager (Specialist Housing) at Greater London Authority and FoL Board Director (Alumni).

The future of high streets and town centres is not a new topic, but it’s been brought into much sharper focus in recent months because of Covid-19. Adding to longstanding questions over the future of bricks and mortar retail and how this impacts high street footfall, uncertainty resulting from lockdown, social distancing, changes to working patterns and planning system reform have been thrown into the mix.

As lockdown restrictions have eased, high street businesses have cautiously been grappling with how to reopen and reposition their offer, in the knowledge that potential local lockdowns could take them back to square one. How can high streets and town centres evolve to remain active, relevant and economically viable? How should policymakers support businesses and high streets to evolve? And how can we work collaboratively to help our high streets survive, adapt and thrive into the future?

These are just some of the questions tabled at the Communities of Practice forum exploring high street recovery. Chaired by Laura Davy, Head of High Streets at LB Lambeth and a Future of London Alumni, the session brought together alumni from across London’s public and private sectors.

Joined by Andy Donald, Chief Executive at LB Redbridge, this was a timely discussion given the level of attention being paid to high streets at the strategic and local level, and across the planning, development and regeneration sectors. Andy began with a presentation covering four key themes: the impact for existing businesses, the consumer perspective, potential future opportunities that could emerge for high streets, and the role of the public sector in leading and supporting recovery.

Spotlight on high street businesses

Communities of practice: high streets
There is now greater emphasis on local high streets and small, independent shops. Source FoL.

No two high streets are the same. Their difference is a result of the varied nature of businesses they accommodate and the diversity of needs they meet in different locations. Local high streets are largely driven by the people who use them and live on or close to them, whereas larger commercial centres are underpinned by workers and their lunchtime and after-work activity.

In recent months the emphasis has shifted significantly towards local high streets and their convenience offer for residents, meaning traditionally strong performing centres underpinned by commercial retail, food and beverage, and cultural activities have been hardest hit. Data from the British Retail Consortium identified a 41% drop in high street footfall in August 2020 compared to August 2019.

We’re already seeing mass closures of a number of high street chains, including Debenhams, Oasis and Monsoon, a pre-pandemic trend that’s now accelerating. This will result in a more rapid shift online for many businesses looking to reduce their overheads and respond to new consumer demand, with an obvious impact for activity on our high streets.

Yet physical consumer patterns will never disappear. Building on the increasing celebration of small independent businesses during lockdown, could this be the catalyst for the resurgence of the local butcher and baker? The challenges for small independent businesses through lockdown have been, and continue to be, severe. But if they can weather the storm they can take advantage of this short-term shift in consumer preference, combined with their lower overheads and space requirements than their larger competitors.

The consumer perspective

Communities of practice: high streets
Waterloo Station: Footfall in central London transport hubs is down during lockdown. Source FoL.

Consumer confidence and safety fears are a big barrier for reopening and reactivating our high streets. Various surveys during lockdown have reported up to 50% of people plan to visit their high streets less due to safety concerns, with similar levels and concerns for using public transport.

If we enter a recession as deep as currently predicted, people will have much less money to spend. Cultural institutions, cinemas, and live music venues are currently looking like some of the biggest casualties, which could be devastating for the vibrancy and appeal of high streets.

For Central London, public transport is also an issue. Far fewer tube and bus journeys into the centre has translated into lower high street footfall from domestic visitors. And tourism from overseas visitors is also at a standstill.

What opportunities could emerge?

The resurgence of local retail and services, aligned with the concept of the ‘15-minute neighbourhood’, is an emerging trend from lockdown that looks set to continue. It suggests longer-term behaviour change and a shake-up of the traditional retail hierarchy with smaller, independent shops on the rise.

New flexibility in the planning system, due to changes to the use class order, provide the opportunity for a greater range of development within town centres without the need for planning permission. This is intended to enable the repurposing of buildings on the high street to support recovery but the impact of this flexibility in the medium to long term remains to be seen. (The use class order changes are currently subject to a judicial review, to be heard in mid-October.)

When it comes to the future of local high streets and town centres, many of the long-standing questions still remain unanswered. Might we see a more significant transition from consumption to creation on our high streets? Can we maximise meanwhile and temporary uses to help capitalise on successful interventions more permanently? Has the pandemic changed the anchors we should be relying on to attract footfall to high streets and town centres in an increasingly digital world?

The role of local authorities in high street recovery

The role of local authorities in leading and supporting high street recovery should not be understated. There’s an economic role to play – such as maximising the potential of council-owned assets and procuring new assets to adapt and shape their future role. And there’s also a role facilitating and delivering investment and interventions in public spaces that provide accessible and inclusive spaces for pedestrians and cyclists, promote public confidence and safety and contribute to a green recovery.

Whilst the re-use of vacant units and sites for meanwhile or permanent uses is an obvious opportunity, this is not always within local authority control. It will also be important to think about the role these spaces can play in providing safe spaces for local communities, and whether they can provide temporary indoor opportunities to support activities in winter months. All of this must come at a time while financial pressures on local authorities themselves are significant.

Local authorities should take this opportunity to embrace the flexibility and iterative approaches that have been required during these recent months and embed this more agile way of working going forward. Given the recent changes to use class designations and other proposed planning system reforms, adaptability and innovation from local authorities to navigate the impacts of these changes will be essential.

Other alumni viewpoints…

A man loads up a cargo bike, communities of practice: high streets
ZED uses electric vans and cargo bikes. Source: LB Waltham Forest.
  • Workspaces could take advantage of planning reform and vacant lots and return to local high streets. This could help diversify uses and boost activity levels. A growing number of organisations are considering more satellite offices near employee homes, rather than a single central hub.
  • The lockdown has helped improve London’s air quality and reduce carbon emissions. To maintain this trajectory, new schemes like electric cargo bikes are being trialled in boroughs across London.
  • High streets should be made more child friendly and inclusive to a broader spectrum of people. As we spend more time in local areas, it’s important to focus on what attracts people to visit and spend time in their high streets, and how the physical environment can accommodate this. Covid-19 is accelerating our thinking on how we can achieve this, and the emphasis on experience will be critical to revive the cultural and hospitality sectors.

There is no one single answer, and as we continue to navigate the impacts of Covid-19 and face further restrictions there will be more twists and turns in the recovery journey. Built environment professionals need to keep talking at a pan-London level, and we need to ensure that economic recovery continues to be a local discussion with residents, visitors, communities, businesses and investors.

This event was part of Future of London’s Communities of Practice forum, bringing together alumni to share challenges and ideas on some of the critical issues they face during the Covid-19 crisis and beyond. It was also part of FoL’s Learning From Crisis response and recovery programme. Find out more about the Alumni network and Learning From Crisis, and get in touch with future Communities of Practice forum suggestions.