I have ‘mouthed off’ pretty regularly these last few years about the future of our high streets – one recurrent thought that I am having is, is it time to consign the term ‘high street’ to history and to just talk about town centres?
Many of us have started to associate the term ‘high street’ with chain stores and mass, uniform consumption, all terms that do not have very positive connotations. Is the term ‘high street’ therefore not simply outmoded and a product of some human thinking and extreme behaviour that we are learning to correct and temper?
At a time when ‘human scale’, ‘bespoke’, ‘conviviality’, ‘making’, ‘fresh’, ‘inspiring’, ‘craft’ are the concepts being embraced by a young generation, that is having to deal with an economic landscape bequeathed by a couple of short-sighted generations before them, does ‘high street’ really still work?
Where are the most desirable places to hang out? They are rarely classed as ‘high streets’ but rather, more eclectic, less corporate parts of our towns and cities like Manchester’s Northern Quarter, London’s Broadway Market, the Mitte in Berlin or Williamsburg in New York. What they all are, is a part of our wider, more vibrant community ‘town centres’. These are the type of locations where people have traditionally gathered to discuss and debate, meet folk, trade and do what most of us love to do, watch the world go by and watch others go about their business.
Does that ‘business’ need to be rows of chain stores, often selling something not that different from another chain store 50 metres away and often offering us no connection to the provenance of what they are selling? What happened to the bookshops where you could spend hours, drinking coffee and watching the world go by or the artisanal family shop, where skills of craft are passed down through the generations?
I know that cynics will again have a go at what I am saying, arguing that this is a middle-class or hipster view of the world (well I am far too old to be classed as a hipster! And besides, isn’t it about time that those cynics stopped knocking people who are trying to do things differently?). I like to think that I still understand the value of bespoke. Gerardine and I started with nothing – Red or Dead started on a market stall, and under our ownership it remained devoutly ‘indie’ and was nothing but serendipitous. We always sought out and took risks (albeit low cost ones) on up-and-coming areas and didn’t set out to ‘displace the indigenous population’ as we opened in offbeat areas of London (yes, Neal Street, Rupert St and the like was offbeat in the early 80s), and then Manchester, Leeds, Bristol, Copenhagen, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Vancouver, etc.
At Red or Dead we experienced at close quarters the battle that ‘indies’ have with trying to get retail outlets in high-traffic locations. We were turned down by countless investors who had snapped up town centre commercial properties and would only lease them to retailers like Next and Oasis with large covenants (replace that with corporate structures and large overdrafts!).
So many ‘high streets’, which are there to serve us all, are now owned by a select few wealthy investment firms – and believe it or not those are often backed by our pension funds. The sad fact is that these investment ‘vehicles’ would rather keep their empty units, YES EMPTY, and maintain the ‘book value’ of these units rather than rent them to someone who can’t afford the inflated rents that the likes of Jessops, Woolworths, Zavi and Blockbuster were paying. And look where it got them! Town centres could be so much more than high streets full of chain stores and empty units. Who wants our cities and towns blighted by empty run-down shops? Surely we can accept that in some cases the ‘book value’ of the stores is a thing of the past, and that if the real market value were applied to them then we might get back a town centre that was interesting? Yes, it would hurt some investors and maybe even a pension fund or two in the short term. But seeing as it’s our generation that will cash out of the pension pot first and that has left a relatively bleak landscape for the generation below us, perhaps it’s the least we could do.
But things may slowly be changing – I have to take my hat off to British Land and the Crown Estate who have backed the PopUp Britain campaign – giving access to otherwise empty ‘town centre’ premises to British retail start-ups. The latest PopUp shop on London’s Piccadilly may only be around for a couple of weeks but it’s a step in the right direction.
It may just be an unreachable dream, but just think of how attractive and interesting a regenerated town centre could be if it were to contain all those interesting trades and makers that formed part of the vibrancy in the past. Add to the ‘baker, the butcher, the candlestick maker’ a graphic designer going about his or her business and offering as an aside a bespoke birthday card service. Wouldn’t it be great to watch a craftsman making a chair or architects at their drawing boards? It might just inspire a generation that making and creating stuff is a real option.
So let’s let go of the term ‘high street’ and celebrate town centres, places where people get together to enjoy being together and seeing what people get up to. It’s not as if this has not always been the case, from the Roman forum to London’s Southbank Centre; places of human discourse with shopping, entertainment and food and drink thrown in, can and do work.
See more from Wayne Hemingway when we spoke at the Your Ready Business Live series event at the Royal Institution of Great Britain: