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The Art of reviving the great British High Street

The great British High Street is in trouble and needs help!

Of course, shopping centres and High Streets have been in trouble for years and nothing has been done about it. Shops have survived in towns and cities where there was glimmer of innovation. Many chains were already in difficulty before the pandemic and again, in some places, the attitude of town and city councils has helped.

A costly business

Running a local shop is expensive. For many years there have been calls for landlords and councils to reduce rent and rates, particularly for small and independent shops. Flexibility in leases, councils acquiring empty shops, provide free parking, reducing the numbers of cafes, betting shops and fast food outlets and introducing markets would all help.

Woman in hat painting on a wall

Different ways of working in our town centres and High Street

The pandemic has changed some things forever. People have found different ways of working, with a flexibility that many were demanding for years. If we had resolved transport problems and already had flexible working for all employees we’d be in a much better position now.

There are calls on Government to encourage people back to the office to stimulate the passing trade for local businesses. However, businesses are finding that flexibility in working is now saving costs, so they won’t be rushing to get staff back in and certainly not if they can’t do it safely. Even if they did this alone, it is not enough to stimulate the town centres and High Streets.

Getting creative

So, we need to get more creative than that. The innovation that is needed for calls for different people to do the job. We need a change at the top of local planning. “Don’t put a ‘Retail expert’ or ‘Town Planner’ in charge of rejuvenating our towns.”

Let’s be a little more radical when working within towns:

“There’s a difference between a run-of-the-mill project manager working creatively and a creative person working creatively. The creative person can bring a whole wealth of knowledge, skills, imagination, inspiration, experience and vision to the table.”

Someone with project management experience is certainly needed. But not a retail background. An experienced individual with an arts background who will bring a whole new and fresh approach. Many will already be experienced in truly working in partnership with other organisations and are effective when working with limited resources! They will bring in community groups from which great things grow, so as to bring in custom in a whole new way. The very basic and most obvious is of course the community cafes and the work that goes on in them, and different pop up stalls each month, but there is so much more that could be done.

Give High Streets their heart again

High streets desperately need their heart back. Empty shops and empty talk of lower rates with better parking will not populate those spaces not filled by vaping stores, betting shops or tanning booths. We’ve all had to learn the value of home deliveries and staying local but Julie Ashworth founder and director of BroadReach Retail consultants notes that Covid hasn’t been all bad for retail…

“Think bikes, think the growth of random local pop ups touting cakes, bread, delis and plants. Independents CAN thrive if the High Street is allowed to be a place of community, of socialising, culture, health, leisure and creativity rather than just a place we visit for shopping and work. Online doesn’t always have to mean Amazon!”, she says.

“It could mean social ownership, shared local websites alongside not for profit communities. Have a heart…think community, think diversity, think about investing in the High Street.”

Shopping and Spectacle

Bringing people to the High Street and town centres is not just about shops and cafés. People are attracted to meeting and being with more of their community doing a variety of things.

How about going to the town centre because you know there’s a chance there might be a flash mob….? Going because you want to see what the theatre group is putting on there this week…? Going to see what the student musicians are doing…? Going to join a workshop and learn new skills…? Going to see what the latest art project is so you can join in with, look at and maybe buy…

By thinking creatively you can capture the imaginations of the families looking and needing to balance necessity with family fun, believes Nicole Louise Geddes from Manic Stage Productions. She says:

“By adding a creative figurehead to oversee the development of town centres and implement sustainable development through strategic planning and fun is a no-brainer to people like me. Local creative communities are crying out to be seen and to meet new potential customers and club members so by giving them a free platform and space to shout about and share their visions and talents could be a great initiative for all involved. Town centres could and should be the heart of a community, many high streets are currently soulless and lacking imagination. We all know that the arts bring joy to so many, and so many are ready and waiting to deliver joy if the opportunity were to arise. Covid has brought a variety of obstacles for the local community group struggling to navigate the mitigation indoors and with hire charge and participant conundrums etc. The high street is a perfect alternative and a place where councils can step up and help bring together many different organisations and a large cross section of the community with the correct creative strategy and understanding.”

Dragging the kids shopping can be a difficult experience! How much easier would it be to have activities that they can join in? A reason for them to go too.

The list is endless for a creative. Something interactive, something to gain your interest and while you’re there grabbing a cuppa and a cake and buy the pair of jeans that you can see before buying. The list of what a creative could bring to the town centre is limitless and therefore so is the potential growth.

It’s all about people

There were calls to get people back into the office to support the local businesses who depend on workers for their trade. However, if people continue to work from home the empty offices could be converted into homes, helping both the housing crisis and having people living on the doorsteps of these local shops and trades. This would obviously need infrastructure but could also boost the economy. Furthermore, new laws could stop the current trend whereby overseas buyers purchase empty buildings for investment and leave them empty.

A creative plea

There are some amazing talented creatives out of work at the moment. Give them work redesigning our High Streets with completely new perspectives and unique vision. Not only will that stimulate the local businesses and economy it will attract the eyes of other authorities and media too!

man dancing in street with one hand on the ground

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By Helen Dewdney, The Complaining Cow

Consultant | Author | Speaker | Blogger | Presenter | Journalist
Helping to make, prevent and deal with complaints

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