The recent news on the decline of the High Street can be seen while walking around nearly every town and city in the UK. According to the Portas Review (December 2011), less than half of our retail spending takes place on the High Street. We lost 15,000 High Street shops between 2000 and 2009 and a further estimated 10,000 over the past couple of years. Nearly one in six shops now stands vacant and shoppers on the High Street have fallen by 10% in the last three years.


The rise of out-of-town shopping centres and internet shopping has had a big impact on the High Street, often suffering from the ‘clone town’ effect, resulting in the loss of local individual character. According to Portas, in the last decade, the amount of out-of-town retail floor space has risen by 30% whilst in-town space has fallen by 14%. A recent report from commercial property experts CBRE shows that UK supermarkets intend to increase their trading space in out-of-town developments by approximately 40%. [Ref. 1]

Why is the High Street worth preserving? It brings social, economic and environmental benefits to communities, where developing a friendly relationship with the shop staff and other customers is far more likely than in big out-of-town stores, who can’t provide that level of intimacy.

The High Street and its shops are a testimony to Britain’s heritage, which, as Portas highlights, makes us feel we are part of something bigger than ourselves, creating a “public identity of people, a web of public respect and trust” (Jane Jacobs, 1961) [Ref. 2]. Having a shop and running a business has traditionally been an aspiration of many people and the High Street is often where these aspirations are put into practice.

Furthermore, according to Portas, the money spent in out-of-town centres and chain stores is more likely to leave the area straight into the pockets of the big players, having less of a local economic impact, and doing damage to current and future entrepreneurs.

The environmental benefits also play a key role. C02 emissions increase when people drive to out-of-town developments rather than walk to their local High Street, or when goods are not locally sourced but imported from far away, as often happens with larger retailers.

The Portas Review explores some solutions to deal with the problems of the High Street, which could possibly lead to its renaissance if implemented correctly:

  • A “Town Team” with a visionary and strong management for High Streets, involving landlords, shopkeepers, Councillors and council officers/ MPs, service providers and residents.

  • A “National Market Day” that entrepreneurs could use to establish themselves (after all, it’s where M&S started). Making it easier for people to become market traders by removing unnecessary regulations could lead to an increase of trading and activity on the High Street.

  • Business rates more effectively supporting small business and independent retailers, retaining the money for reinvestment in the town centre.

  • Improving access to and within town centres, with parking revenue directly reinvested in the High Street.

  • Large retailers mentoring local businesses and independent retailers and reporting on their support of the local High Street in their annual report.

  • More proactive use of Compulsory Purchase powers by Local Authorities to support the redevelopment of High Street shops, stepping in when landlords are negligent with new “empty shop management orders”, and creating a public register of High Street landlords.

Finally, it is essential, as the report suggests, to make an explicit presumption in favor of town centre development and a ban on out-of-town developments in national planning policy, which we at BFoE have been campaigning for over many years.

Ref. 1: CBRE report, 2011

Ref. 2: The Portas Review, 2011

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