Jayne Dowle: Retail alone won’t save the high street, our town centres need to evolve or die

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I THOUGHT I’d heard it all about the problems afflicting the high street. Shoppers fleeing to retail parks which offer free parking. The internet providing us with goods at the click of the button. The rising toll extracted from independent traders by business rates, as outlined in yet another Government report this week. That was until I had a chat with my friend, a solicitor in Doncaster.

She loves her work, and has progressed through her firm to make partner. Yet she is considering a change of career.

She tells me that she can’t see traditional high street practices surviving for much more than another decade. It’s not just the demise of legal aid affecting client turnover, or the rise of individuals taking the law into their own hands online. It’s the fact that it’s too expensive for smaller companies to even pay for a presence on the high street.

Many solicitors are already going to the wall. And those that manage to carry on? Like accountants, financial advisers, builders, bakers and candlestick makers, they are relocating to cheaper out-of-town business parks. My friend works hard and she shops hard. I’m not sure what would be worse for her; losing her job or losing the opportunity to nip out at lunchtime to have a wander round. At some point soon, she may find herself facing a hard decision.

For her, it will be tough. For local councils and all those charged with the regeneration of our towns, it will be even harder. That’s why I will be pointing her in the direction of yet another new report. The Future Spaces Foundation, a think-tank founded by architect Ken Shuttleworth and advised by top economists and retail experts, has published findings which urge struggling towns to completely rethink what they offer. Instead of clinging onto the dream of retail revival, town centres should reinvent themselves as centres of commerce. Instead of expecting a new department store to revolutionise failing fortunes, they should turn over boarded-up shops to office space and encourage colleges and universities to build urban campuses.

Living in Barnsley, where the Future Spaces Foundation focused its research, I can’t welcome this enough. I’ve lost faith in our long-stalled plans for a new shopping centre and market. It’s a wonderful idea, but it’s an idea that has lost its time.

While endless wrangles over funding and planning permission have rolled on, our needs and desires have evolved. And the economic climate has changed beyond recognition. Why do you think big investors drag their feet over major schemes such as Westfield in Bradford? It’s all down to lack of confidence in potential returns.

No new big-name store has the power to single-handedly overturn years of incremental change in our shopping habits. And as anyone who takes a stroll round Cheapside will tell you, there simply isn’t the money to spend. We’ve got three pound shops in Barnsley for a reason. And that’s because it’s where local people can afford to shop.

What’s the point of building a shiny new retail centre if no one has any money? What’s the point of planning fountains and urban parks if no one except the pigeons wants to play in them?

Evidence of this new way of thinking is already beginning to emerge. It’s very sad that Barnsley Library looks like being demolished to make way for a new sixth-form college. Ultimately though, it makes sense to encourage more young people into the town centre. Not only do they bring with them their lunch money to boost the local economy, they also take ownership of the town itself. They see it as a proper centre, rather than a place to skirt round on the way to Meadowhall. Town centres need constant ebb and flow to survive. Remove the people and you remove the life. Remove the life and the town withers and dies.

Reworking the town centre and turning over redundant retail space to commercial and public use would bring several positive outcomes; it will give new purpose to neglected buildings, it will bring jobs close to public transport without having to invest in new infrastructure, it will encourage more people to live close to work, and ultimately all this will increase footfall in town centres.

And this is where it gets really exciting. More people in the town centre every day means only one thing. More shops. More outlets selling coffee and doing manicures and cutting keys and offering all the services that people need to go about their daily life. In other words, more things to keep people like my friend the solicitor happy.

She’s a clever woman, but she’s easily pleased. Much harder to appease is the attitude of local councils and central government towards such massive scale of change.

To work effectively, these revolutionary ideas would require a total about-turn of planning laws and a massive injection of political will, not to a mention a great degree of imagination and a leap of faith. All of us who care about where we live, shop and work are ready for a brave new world. The question is, are those with the power to create it ready?

Jayne Dowle