To rescue Britain’s dying high streets we need to stop obsessing over shops

Carl Telford
OUR high streets look like they are dying. The Centre for Retail Research recently predicted that a fifth of all high street shops could close by 2018. Its findings echo an even more pessimistic 2012 Deloitte report, which suggested that up to 40 per cent of all shops could close by 2017, thanks not only to economic malaise but also to consumers’ love of online shopping.

Last year, the government launched the High Street Innovation Fund, on the back of a report by retail guru Mary Portas. The scheme was set up to help high streets in 12 towns get back on their feet. One year on, and the results have been mixed. Research by BBC Radio 4 revealed that 10 of the 12 “Portas Pilot” government-funded towns have seen a fall in the number of occupied shops. In some, charity shops and pop-up stores fill part of the void. But these solutions are transitory. While pop-up retailing is sometimes innovative, many temporary stores exist purely to shift excess stock.

While the scheme is admirable, this effort misses one important point: the power of semantics. For most of us, the high street is synonymous with shopping. And we remain far too welded to retail. Although Portas’s report rightly suggested that high streets turn into hubs for social, commercial, and cultural enterprises – with housing, offices, and medical centres alongside local shops and marketplaces – we remain obsessed by going to the shops. For true innovation to occur, perhaps we need to forget “the shop” completely, and focus on what we have: empty town-centre spaces that could be put to good use.

Town planners should take inspiration from a new generation of city-dwelling pioneers. University of Toronto professor Richard Florida coined the term creative class to refer to young workers who prefer urban environments to suburban ones. Some members of this class are already making their mark on cities: the emergence of 3D printing could lead to city and town-centre factories. In the New York borough of Queens, the 3D printing firm Shapeways recently opened a factory. This self-styled “Factory of the Future” will house 50 industrial-scale 3D printers, employ 50 people, and produce as many as 5m consumer products per year. Eberhard Abele, who leads the Institute of Production Management, Technology and Machine Tools at the Technische Universität Darmstadt, believes that small urban production units will eventually supplement big manufacturing facilities.

Some urban creatives are rethinking housing. In Caracas, Venezuala, architects Hubert Klumpner and Alfredo Brillembourg of Urban-Think Tank (U-TT) became interested in a disused office tower – the Torre David building – which 750 poor families have moved into. U-TT thinks that this kind of innovative partnership (between new types of tenants and empty urban space) could inform the creation of new buildings, and the re-use of existing ones. While Britain doesn’t face quite the same situation, redundant commercial units can and should be used used more flexibly as homes.

Even agriculture may have a role in future urban environments. Another New York company, BrightFarms, is already installing hydroponic greenhouses on the roofs of grocery stores (for growing legal produce, I must add.) In Sweden, Plantagon is developing infrastructure for urban farms, including vertical greenhouses. These firms think their methods will provide fresher produce, reduce transportation costs, and prevent damage to food.

Although these ideas are emerging in cities, the successes and failures of urban businesses will provide towns with valuable lessons, and templates for change. Crucially, not one of these concepts involves retail.

Large-scale repurposing of town centres will be challenging. A great deal of inertia exists. Many units remain empty because tenants left before the lease expired; landlords have little motivation to find new occupiers. Converting retail space into housing or a factory presents not only technical, but also significant legal challenges. (What if I wanted to open a microbrewery in the former Allders department store in central Croydon?) Regeneration of our town centres will require systems thinking – businesses, landlords, local government, and other stakeholders must all want change to happen. Empty retail spaces must also become financially-attractive destinations for a wide range of businesses and ventures, new and old.

But with fresh thinking we could see diverse regeneration – whether novel homes, manufacturing plants, urban agriculture, or other less exciting but equally valid businesses. But paradoxically, in order to save the high street, perhaps we first need to forget about shops.

Carl Telford is program manager for Strategic Business Insights’ Scan service.