A Phoenix Moment for our Town Centres?
Updated: Dec 8, 2020
Is Coronavirus the death knell of our high streets, or a chance to make them genuine community anchors?
Within about 24 hours last week Arcadia Group (owners of Topshop, Topman and several other big retailers) collapsed into administration and talks to save Debenhams fell through, putting about 25,000 jobs at risk altogether and promising to permanently change the face of British high streets.
The deaths of these retail giants are part of a wider trend - long-term decline in town centres being dramatically accelerated by Coronavirus. The Guardian found that almost every high street declined between 2013 and 2018, with an average of 40 shopfronts being shuttered per town - and some town centres shrinking by a fifth. This decline has obviously picked up in 2020, with USDAW estimating that 20,000 shops have permanently shut (costing 230,000 jobs) and Melanie Leech, head of the British Property Federation, warning that half of the shops on a typical high street could fold. HOPE not hate’s own research found that 89% of Brits think Coronavirus will accelerate the decline of the high street.
The difficulties facing traditional high streets come as online retailers like Amazon increase their dominance - the tech firm announced a 40% increase in sales between summer 2019 and 2020, and owner Jeff Bezos has become the first person ever with an estimated net w
orth of over $200bn. Online retailers aren’t going away, which means that even the best possible recovery from Coronavirus won’t see the traditional high street booming any time soon.
This has big implications for how our towns centre themselves, and poses a serious threat to the concept of physical communities in much of the UK. Our ability to build resilient communities - ones that are optimistic, cohesive and confident in the face of change - is often tied to their physical makeup. The seemingly accelerating decline of our high streets, then, could have considerable consequences for those of us working towards more hopeful, open communities.
It's important not to be too sentimental here – while Topshop and other high street staples have been longstanding parts of many town centre landscapes, many come with plenty of baggage around their treatment of staff and supply chains. Still, their closures will no doubt feed into a wider message of decline in communities across the country: things are getting worse, we’re all becoming more isolated, our communities aren’t what they used to be. While this story of decline paints a rosier picture of the past than it likely should, it’s also a hard one to argue with when it’s being made so convincingly through shuttered shopfronts and increasingly barren town centres.
This story – of gradual public realm decay, peppered with a few big stories like the collapse of Debenhams – isn’t inevitable, and most people want to be part of vibrant, prosperous communities. If Debenhams and Arcadia do close forever (and whether or not they do specifically, thousands of other shops are) it’s important that our communities are able to rise to that challenge and provide the communal environment that the traditional high street offers.
There are already some really promising projects leading the way on the future of the high street. The Midsteeple Quarter in Dumfries is an impressive exercise in breathing new life into a town centre, Co-Innovation in Dover turned an ex Co-op building into a testing ground for new small businesses before they head out into the high street, and Empty Shop in Hartlepool is turning closed shopfronts into exciting cultural hubs. Each of them focuses on creating an exciting, sustainable public space for their community, and provides a glimpse of what town centres across the UK have the potential to become.
Rethinking our town centres is no easy fix, though. Centring our high streets around deliberate community-building will be lengthy, likely expensive work. But if we want our town communities to be actual communities - places that people engage with and care about - it’s work worth doing. As we (hopefully) emerge from Coronavirus in 2021, it’s for us to decide whether our local landscapes are defined by closed shutters or by arts hubs, independent businesses and community venues.
Seeing so many job losses at once is obviously incredibly sad, and there’s a long road ahead for our town communities. But, if we do it right, the collapse of these retail giants - and the pandemic they’re set within - will be a call to renew and rethink our town centres rather than part of a slow, inevitable demise.