Last edited 07 Jul 2024

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Institute of Historic Building Conservation Institute / association Website

High Street: how our centres can bounce back from the retail crisis

High street front cover.jpg

High Street: how our centres can bounce back from the retail crisis, David Rudlin, Vicky Payne and Lucy Montague, RIBA Publishing, 2023, 230 pages, 94 illustrations, paperback.

High Street is a timely survey of the economic, social and cultural trends shaping high streets in towns like yours and mine. The joint authors, with backgrounds in urbanism and urban design, work in academia and consultancy, while Rudlin and Payne co-authored the National Model Design Guide. The book is beautifully illustrated with the authors’ own line drawings.

The authors provide a sector-by-sector analysis of the fortunes of the high street, beginning by taking a long view of its prospects. The present crisis is just one stage in a continuous process of change. The traditional high street was once challenged by supermarkets. Later the threat came from out-of-town retail. More recently the high street has been under pressures from the financial crisis, deals like the private equity takeover of Debenhams, and by online retailing and the pandemic. The authors hope ‘that (the book) goes a little way to bringing together the worlds of retail and the built environment to develop a shared agenda for the development of high streets’. They believe there are cautious grounds for optimism.

Part three of the book is the most forward-looking and the part in which conservation professionals might see a role. In one of a series of examples, the authors describe Will Alsop’s vision of Barnsley as a Tuscan hill town. Although the vision was not implemented, it changed the perception of the local council and local people of what Barnsley was and might become. In nearby Doncaster, local creatives developed the Doncopolitan: a blog, radio show and magazine aiming to develop a new vision for the town based on creative arts. Much has been achieved on the ground, but retail strategy is still seen as largely separate from this source of energy and innovation.

From the 1990s, Frome in Somerset has developed a community-based strategy to bring small-scale and start-up retail into vacant units in the town centre, and to introduce a huge, monthly Sunday market. This has involved reinventing the role of the town council in which all members now serve as independents.

Many high streets are in the inner suburbs of cities. Examples such as Leicester’s Belgrave Road and the Balti Triangle in Ladypool, Birmingham, demonstrate how diverse communities can turn high streets into something exciting and different.

Elsewhere, all is not well in the inner suburban high street. The authors trace the loss of high streets in Greater Manchester and other cities. These places were once distinct from town centres but provided strips of ‘super diversity that ran for miles through cities’. Even here, though, examples from London, Newcastle and Sheffield show that high streets can prosper by providing local retailing within an economy increasingly based on cafes, restaurants and bars.

The book concludes on an optimistic note. The authors make a distinction between a retail crisis and a crisis for the high street. The collapse of property investment that lies behind the decline of the town centres can provide an escape from potentially damaging schemes planned in the 2000s. The hope for the future lies with independent businesses and the relocation of retailers such as Ikea in the high street. Other promising trends include a convergence of online and physical retailing, and an enduring demand for authenticity and uniqueness. Perhaps most important is a desire for experience: eating, drinking and meeting friends, rather than accumulating more stuff.

The strategies for reviving the high street mean more planning, not less. We can hope that they also bring, as Jane Jacobs wrote more than 50 years ago, a recognition of the importance of historic buildings.

This article originally appeared as ‘Accumulation and experience’ in the Institute of Historic Building Conservation’s (IHBC’s) Context 178, published in December 2023. It was written by Michael Taylor, editorial co-ordinator for Context.

--Institute of Historic Building Conservation

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