Reimagining Our High Streets: A Call for Connections over Consumerism

People's Panel Series This piece is part of a series of contributions from the CPI People's Panel - a group of people who are passionate about the impact that government can and should have on people's daily lives. We provide this forum as part of our listening journey to help governments be more responsive to the needs of people.

The UK’s high streets have been in the doldrums for a while. In the last decade, as more consumers shifted their purchasing habits online the government sought the advice of high street ‘Tsars’ Mary Portas and Bill Grimsey. After a disastrous retail year in 2019, global professional services firm KPMG reported that high streets had a surplus of retail space. They advocated the reimagination of high streets as community hubs. Then the pandemic hit.

If you walk (socially distanced now, of course) down your high street you may not think that it’s a place where a range of policies collide. Nonetheless, policies from planning to transport to economic and community safety all impact on your experience. Even without that awareness, many of us will recognise that the experience is not what it once was. The evidence is easy to see: shutters down and empty shop windows.

Coronavirus has accelerated this process. We sit on the edge of change that reminds me of the New York 5th Avenue Easter Parade meme that has done the rounds for a few years.

Left: National Archives Catalog & Right: George Grantham Bain Collection. From a presentation by Tony Seba to the Green Business Summit, Copenhagen (2016)

In the two shots taken thirteen years apart, horses disappear from the street and are almost entirely replaced by cars. The built environment looked the same but the way people used the space was transformed in little more than a decade.

It is truly terrible that people are suddenly losing their businesses, their employment, their income. Yet the harsh reality is that we are in a period of rapid transition whether we like it or not. As individuals, families and communities it is natural to feel anxious for what the future might hold. 

For me, this precise moment in time is captured well by the Centre for Public Impact’s Fail Forward report, which states that ‘municipalities now face the greatest challenges of our era.’ Government need to create cultures that embrace the inevitable learning from failure and ‘partner with their communities to create a more just, equitable future for all of their residents’.

Our high streets and the policies that shape them

Whilst many of our high streets are failing as centres of commerce right now, that doesn’t mean that our public spaces are failures. With so many other certainties collapsing around our ears, can still aim forward at the policy level? What might high streets in recovery from the pandemic look like?

This topic provoked a lively discussion with CPI UK’s People’s Panel last month, a diverse group from across the country passionate about the impact that government can and should have on people’s lives. I was lucky enough to get involved at the start of the year, drawn by the Shared Power Principle which informs my work as the Co-production Champion in Southend-on-Sea. 

Our discussion revealed a real appetite for public involvement supporting local government to reimagine the high street and not simply accept the failing status quo. The Panel recognised that the impact of the pandemic has been different for cities, towns and villages as people work closer to home. This means there is a rich contextual layer to any reimagination. Smaller high streets might be holding their own in our more rural locations. Those that are struggling tend to be in commuter towns and cities, missing the economic activity of commuters. Given the positive environmental and wellbeing impacts from reduced travel and the fact that office space, like retail space, is being scaled back by employers, it seems unlikely that there will ever be a wholesale return to the commuting culture. 

Enabling community power

In the midst of our failing high street, do we have an opportunity to create something that feels like my street? A place that draws us in and enriches our lives? The reality is that the power to do that lies between the community in terms of our behaviour and relationship with our streets, national and local government who can work with residents to listen to how we want to do this and enable that where they can. 

The People’s Panel discussion covered a lot of this ground towards a blueprint for change. The content aligned closely with the vision for a ‘15 minute city’ that is informing community engagement and planning decisions from Paris to Seattle. The Panel called for a cultural shift where the public stop looking to central government as the saviour and prompt local authorities to step up. It was acknowledged that breaking down the silos in developing local authority policy for ‘place’ rather than simply business function is much needed. Parish councils were cited as an example of being more effective in this regard, due at least in part to the neighbourhood nature of their remit and perhaps the closer relationships between people at the smaller scale.

The Panel called for a cultural shift where the public stop looking to central government as the saviour and prompt local authorities to step up.

A great example was given by one People’s Panel member, describing a shared space neighbourhood initiative that had fallen foul of red tape related to ‘toilets and seats’. It was felt that many community ideas are blocked by bureaucracy. One takeaway from the early days of lockdown was the ‘ethical rule-breaking’ seen in public service to get things done in a crisis. Reframe that as reducing unnecessary rules to enable community power and we could be in business. Indeed it is community power that MP Danny Kruger’s recent ‘Levelling Up Our Communities’ report identified as the missing ingredient in his proposed social covenant.

Connecting, not just consuming

I know what I want. I want a shift from the mentality of a corporate high street where people pass each other but rarely meet. I’d like us to share spaces that privilege connection over consumerism. I’d like to share a space that connects us to nature. I’d like us to use space in a multiplicity of ways that drive a wellbeing economy and build social capital in a community. What if our streets were curated spaces, inclusive and accessible, offering something for everyone? How might that look at the neighbourhood level as we visit our streets to play, grow and learn together rather than just to tramp up and down lugging our shopping?

What if our streets were curated spaces, inclusive and accessible, offering something for everyone?

It sounds beautifully simple, but of course, it’s not. Without policy drivers and local enablers, it is an idealistic pipe dream. We still need places to buy things, of course we do. But our consumer behaviour should only form one part of how we use high street spaces, not be its raison d’être. 

The Chancellor of the Exchequer rightly pointed out we have a consumer-led economy and suggested musicians, actors and artists should ‘retrain’. You and I are those very consumers. If we want policies that help out our high streets, maybe we need to help them ourselves. I for one am looking forward to conversations and sharing thinking about how we can use them differently in the 21st century, in all the different ways that we know enrich all of our lives.

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