For more than a century, the high street has been an integral part of life in the UK; and a bellwether for the economic health of the nation. But today the high street has not so much caught a cold as developed a debilitating virus, most likely caught from the internet, and one that could leave it struggling to survive.
In recent months retailers such as Toys R Us and New Look have been in trouble following on from the closures of BHS, Jaeger and Austin Reed. It’s not just traditional retailers who are facing difficulties. Banks, building societies and travel agents have seen trade move online and restaurant chains such as Prezzo and Jamie’s Italian are also closing branches as footfall declines.
This isn’t a British phenomenon, but one that is happening across Europe. And it isn’t restricted to the traditional high street either – retail parks are also suffering.
The internet and the dizzying rise of online shopping has fuelled the issue, but there are also concerns around business rates and increasing property prices, while the collapse in the pound post-Brexit is pushing up prices and slowing consumer spending. Further, many older people say they feel excluded from the high street due to noise, lack of parking and a dearth of seating in shopping areas.
More big name closures are prompting the question of whether the high street can revitalise itself.
The answer is complex. In many smaller towns, without the footfall or spend, units will remain closed seeking alternative uses. But in our larger towns and cities the high street will adjust rather than disappear, becoming more of a leisure destination. We are already witnessing this in our Scottish cities with more coffee shops and restaurants. And as we spend more money on fitness and well-being, more spas, gyms and yoga centres will pop up.
In Edinburgh’s Ocean Terminal, the former BHS floor space is now occupied by a roller skating rink and indoor skateboard park.
Traditional retail units may be less profitable with more shoppers touching and trying merchandise before buying it cheaper online. Why carry your shopping around all day when it could be delivered to you, neatly packaged, by the time you arrive home?
But it’s important that government keeps a close eye on business rates – if our retail environment is to revolutionise itself we need to ensure that the barriers to entry are as low as possible so that good ideas and new uses can find space to breathe.
A failing high street is bad for all of us. Aside from the obvious loss of jobs it is part of our social fabric. We want it to work. We need it to work. And that means finding radical new uses for it.