Britain must do more to save its high street

Britain must do more to save its high street

THE HARD WORD | Britain has for centuries built a community around its town centres, it must keep it that way. The alternative is a future of bland, concrete jungles, a reality for Australian consumers long ago.

Britain's high street
THE outlook is rather grim. Government research out prior to Christmas last year showed a third of UK high street stores are “degenerating or failing”. Worse still it found that the amount of spending on the high street has dropped to below half, and is sliding further still as more people head to out-of-town shopping centres to spend what little money they have.

One in seven shops on the high street are vacant, according to a survey released last year by the Local Data Company. One in seven!

It is a blight on this country’s government at all levels. Councils and government have seemingly turned their backs on one of this country’s best assets. Exorbitant parking fees, excessive rent, over-the-top regulation and a lack of investment has left the high street on its knees. Of course there is a whole host of other reasons as to why the high street is failing, namely the rise and rise of online shopping. But The Hard Word isn’t interested so much in the cause, it’s more interested in the potential outcome.

Shopping centres in my mind are dirty words. They are gargantuan piles of concrete built by multinational corporations and laced with global superstores. Yes they may be convenient but they lack character, charm and the small, independent businessman. And they have flourished in Australia.

The high street is well and truly dead in Australia. It has been for as long as I can remember. The Westfield Group’s portfolio houses a staggering 3.5 million square metres of retail space, attracting more than 500 million visitors annually across five states. And that’s just one group. It’s a pointer to the monopoly these corporations hold in Australia.

As a former Melbournian the appeal of Victorian streets such as Little Collins Street, High Street Armadale, Brunswick Street, High Street Northcote and Greville Street is hard to ignore. They each (largely) consist of independent stores, boutiques and smaller coffee shops, bars and bakeries. But for a city of more than three million people there aren’t too many more obvious examples that come to mind.

The overwhelming majority of Melbourne residents, regardless of where they live, will head to Chadstone, Westfield Doncaster, Southland, Northland or Highpoint to spend their cash. And between those ‘heavyweights’ are smaller shopping centres that house miniature versions of their big brothers.

One of the things I love most about London is its high streets. Each and every suburb has its own, dotted with pubs, clothing stores, restaurants and supermarkets all with ample public transport links and beautiful parks nearby. Markets also abound. Yes the temperatures along the high street are unregulated, but that just adds to the experience.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not a neophobe, afraid of new buildings and even worse – fearful of progress. In fact it’s quite the opposite. But it’s the way in which this progress is achieved that is of most concern.

As Mary Portas (UK television fashionista) recently pointed out, governments must create “multi-factional” high streets. I’m not convinced that Tesco and Sainsbury’s have a role to play on Britain’s high streets, and I can understand the vehement opposition when one looks to open its doors, but like it or not they are here to stay.

More needs to be done to maintain an attractive space that people want to spend time in, and shopping isn’t the only answer. European high streets are a case in point and even today still flourish.

Britain has for centuries built a community around its town centres, it must keep it that way.  The alternative is a future of bland, concrete jungles – a reality for Australian consumers long ago.

Nathan Motton

Nathan Motton

Nathan Motton: Nathan has worked as a journalist for the past four years, and combines experience in both broadcast and print journalism. He has lived in London for the past 12 months and loves writing about the issues that effect Aussies both directly and indirectly living in the UK.