Creative Future High Streets
So much has been written and spoken about the changing nature of the High Street over the last few years, and this has only increased in the wake of Covid-19. Town Centres are important spaces that pretty much everyone has experienced as shoppers, workers, leisure seekers, and businesses owners, and the apparent demise of their ‘traditional’ role is of great interest to the majority of people.
‘The year ahead will be a big one for the high street as it seeks to recover, adapt and evolve as a result of the pandemic’ said Robert Jenrick on announcing the list of towns and cities that would secure a share of the £830m Future High Streets Fund. Local Authorities have presented many different ways of spending Government money to support economic recovery, but the whole process does appear very top-down. Of course, involvement of the ‘top’ is necessary, but it cannot be the whole answer, particularly for the many market towns and villages across the UK that are not getting any of this funding.
As we have entered Lockdown 3 across the country and with public services so stretched, it can be difficult to think creatively about the future of our local high streets and town/villages centres. What does ‘adapt and evolve mean’ in smaller towns and villages? The 2020 Covid-related Grimsey Review of High Streets 2020 was clear that ‘localism’ is central to what needs to happen next — a ‘massive shift in power away from central government to local communities and a renewed focus on localism.’ Local communities are clearly going to be more important than ever, but often need support, access to resources and clear sustainable creative visions formed through debate and collaboration (with businesses and local authorities in particular). Action to test ideas, not just talk. This requires the ability to take over underused spaces and shops, and planning ahead for a renewed focus on community events, markets and opportunities for a sense of occasion — inclusive and diverse.
Writing in the Telegraph on the 31st December, prominent architect Irena Bauman was clear that we ‘like the idea of the place we live in having its own special character. Uniqueness can also be an economic strength.’ She is interested in the fact that many British high streets had become largely indistinguishable from one another — ‘Chain stores tended to dominate, leading to a loss of local identity that caused real pain to communities.’ Whether or not everyone in communities felt the ‘pain’, there is a need to really understand what ‘localism’ means in the context of the globalised 21st Century economy. The current reliance on the ‘market’ is clearly not delivering and has caused much of the loss of identity and distinctiveness that will be needed to attract people back to High Streets. Mary Portas says that High Street should not be ‘saved’, but rather change to ‘provide deeper, meaningful connections’ with businesses focusing more on what she calls the ‘kindness economy’, moving away from a reliance on big retailers which have fewer local connections and less concern for the environment.
So whether or not there is funding from Government, or whether the local authority has clear plans for high street renewal, there has got to be a role for ‘localism’. This will mean something different in each place, and the planning ahead cannot wait until the latest lockdown has ended. New ideas need to emerge. Talk and plan during lockdown in preparation for taking creative action when we emerge. This is what the Free Market Radicals projects is aiming for right now.