Doom on the high street?

Towns have had none of the attention that has been lavished on cities in recent years, writes Janet Sillett. But any solution to helping them thrive must see that towns have more than a single shopping street.

The headlines about the high street are usually dire – decline, extinction, neglect. And there is certainly a long list of challenges our high streets face – the ever increasing rise of online shopping, rise and fall of out of town shopping centres, high business rates and fixed costs. The statistics aren’t promising – high vacancy rates, shop closures and jobs lost.

And this is happening despite a growing pile of reports and ‘solutions’ – the Portas and Grimsey reviews, an inquiry from the HCLG select committee, Demos’s Shopping for Good, the Timpson report…

Towns and high streets are not, of course, all the same. There can’t be a blueprint that fits all circumstances. But are there some shared characteristics and some principles that could provide some kind of framework for action?

It is true that despite reviews and projects towns have at times lagged behind cities in public policy. Towns haven’t had the same focus or been lauded as the new renaissance or the engines of growth. There isn’t an equivalent of city deals. They have lacked a collective voice. Central government has little ownership of the towns agenda, on the other hand local government has considerable policy interest.

LGiU Scotland’s briefing series on towns and high streets has argued for various ways forward. From the practical – reforming how smaller businesses are taxed and simplifying compulsory purchase orders to the more radical – such as refocusing high streets away from retail, moving council offices into town centres. But what strikes me about many of the reports on towns we have discussed and our own perspectives is that a more holistic approach is needed. And that what is happening in towns has to be seen in relationship to what is happening in larger places nearby. There have been theories that towns benefit from a beneficial ripple effect from nearby cities, and maybe some do, (though the economic theory of trickle down economics doesn’t bode well for this?). Towns, though, have their own socio-economic geographies and require their own policy solutions – they aren’t just add-ons to the nearest city.

What does holistic mean here? I believe it has to mean we don’t just look at shops closing or the empty units left behind, but at the wider economic, cultural and environmental context. We need to look at what else is happening in some towns. Generally, towns have older populations than cities, but many have worse access to services like banking or hospitals, public transport can be poor, especially buses, and where younger people are priced out of housing. Where even pubs are closing. There needs to be vision for a place – where the council and its partners and communities focus on making the public realm high quality, where heritage and leisure are priorities and where independent shops can thrive. Local authorities have the key leading role in bringing the assets of a town together even if budget pressures have eroded their ability to support towns as a whole place.

In Scotland there has been the introduction of shared decision making and community empowerment, together with the enhanced role of the council in the local economy, employment, and housing and planning strategy. The future of towns isn’t all about shopping, but also about access to transport, to public services, to green spaces and a great quality of life.

There are positives that we sometimes forget. An American study of small towns in Iowa characterised their towns as being ‘declining’ – losing population and quality of life; ‘thriving’ – gaining population and quality of life; ‘smart shrinking’ – losing population but gaining quality of life and ‘adverse growing’ – gaining population but losing quality of life. This may be a generalisation that doesn’t fit that well here, but it does highlight some of the benefits that many smaller places have – residents who are more civilly engaged, with stronger social networks, and with a civic focus on social infrastructure. It is local authorities that can play to these strengths – we may need legislation from central government around planning and taxation, and of course more funding, but the role of councils as civic leaders is the key to promoting our towns as engines not just of growth but also of quality of life and wellbeing.

The following briefings on towns are available to LGiU Scotland members:

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