We can all see the battering our high streets have taken over the last year as a result of Covid-19 which hit a retail sector already weathering a storm of closures, falling footfall and the ever-rising growth in online shopping. It is often said that the High Street is dead but perhaps there is a different way of looking at this?
The majority of high streets are in our small towns and cities and people have missed them. We all noticed how these small towns and cities were immediately busy as soon as the shops reopened. Even when shops were shut on sunny days, the centre of Abergavenny – my local high street – was busy with people eating an ice cream and having a coffee. We have missed the service and being able to look at and touch what we were buying. We have appreciated the effort that shops made to support the local communities, supporting those shielding, and feeding NHS workers.
No one would deny that is a challenging time to be a retailer but perhaps the recent experience of a dormant high street will allow councils and retailers to work together to evolve positively in the post Covid world.
The high street needs to repurpose and not just into a row of restaurants. What about cultural venues? Smaller shops are of course easier to repurpose than large department stores. We need to reimagine uses for the benefit of the local community.
New planning rules (Use class E) are making change of use easier and will help the high street evolve. Introducing offices or co-working places, and more accommodation, will put people back in the heart of the high street.
Strong local leadership is needed but the government must play its part and reform the business rates system. Extending the relief scheme is a help, but proper reform is long overdue and urgent, alongside finding a solution to level the taxation playing field between the high street and online retailers.