Opinion: Retail reborn

20th January 2020

Natalia Maximova, Associate Partner, writes for PlaceTech on reimagining the future of the retail and the high street. She argues that high streets might be showing signs that they are unwell, but they are far from dead—with bold new anchors built around culture and public realm emerging.

Read the full article here.

Retail reborn

It is fair to say that up until now the future of retail and the future of the high street were almost synonymous. Bar London and other big urban centres, both were considered to be going through a rapid decline. Major household names in retail are falling into administration leaving local centres with occasional takeaway outlets and charity shops sandwiched between boarded-up units.

Talking of which, after dropping off a bag of toys my children were ready to part with, it was there I stumbled across a second-hand copy of Emile Zola’s novel ‘The Ladies’ Paradise’. I haven’t read it since I was a teenager and dived into a colourful story of the inner workings of a major department store at the end of the 19th century. In scrupulous and lush detail, the book describes the rise of a retail empire accompanied by the fall of small retailers in the area, swamped by a glittering giant.

Written with such gusto, the descriptions of all things retail outshine the love story of the novel. Are those glorious years of large department stores over? A brief encounter with an old book made me think retail is not in decline—it is simply changing. Retail is going online, F&B replaces traditional shops, shipping containers are converted into shopping pop-ups (check out Bruntwood’s Hatch under the Mancunian Way in my home city of Manchester), competitive leisure is developing as a sector (Urban Axe Throwing—what’s next?), and food halls are on the wish list of every town (everyone wants a piece of sourdough pizza from Altrincham Market). Though department stores—the Amazons of the 20th century—are certainly struggling.

However, once regarded as a major disaster for any high street, the loss of an ‘anchor’ is no longer so. Other elements, such as public realm, are becoming new anchors, and other users and considerations are coming into play. Anything that keeps people where they are attracted and can stay on their own terms—cultural venues, curated spaces built on experience—can serve as an anchor.

The reinvention and reappraisal of high streets has been an urban dilemma and a planning challenge for some time now. With many of the outmoded shopping centres there seems to be momentum in exploring how residential development can dovetail with a reduced amount of retail space to create viable development. Hence residential developers talking at conferences, retailers attending housing updates, and multiple applications for residential towers are being considered even in small market towns. Higher density is required to pay for the loss of retail space, which still has a high rateable value tag no matter how underused.

Encouraging in-city living in lieu of large retail or alongside a reduced retail offer is indeed a positive step, but it will require changes in planning policies to enable different land uses and local development plans as well as a new approach to valuing and supporting infrastructure. Diversity of residential offer is also key, as many predict in-city living as a retirement plan for those who have appetite for culture and a vibrant environment—not to mention families with young children. Both categories require the support of healthcare, amenity spaces and some form of retail—perhaps the type that would promote daily shopping for fresh local produce, encourage local craft skills and contribute to a community bonding.

There are three things that are continuously mentioned in relation to high street and retail:

  1. Experience
  2. USP
  3. and Business Rates

The design industry and property market are in active search for answers for the first two points with some great results: a number of successful developments have brought life back to underperforming streets and town centres. Sometimes a good quality public realm and a parking solution are enough to kick-start regeneration (Altrincham and Preston come to mind).

The UK government’s £1bn Future High Streets Fund will play its role, too. Labelled by some as ‘too little too late’, this could be a winning ticket if spent wisely. For example, after securing £25m from the fund, Wigan Council is looking to restore historic buildings around their town centre. This approach to recognise local assets is exactly the right move—it’s what makes the place unique and attractive.

This is an opportunity for the authorities to engage masterplanners, urban designers, architects, agents and private developers to create a curated high street environment with community focus and a strong local character—especially in places like Shrewsbury, where all three shopping centres are now owned by the council.

The renovation and improvement of retail and other high street properties, however, is not all down to securing investments. Business rates and rateable value are currently preventing many retailers from remaining in developments—be it at a larger scale or local refurbishments. In some towns a 50-70% demolition of the existing (superfluous) retail and creation of a public square and green open space would be the answer, but that would go against rateable value, which remains unreasonably high in many locations.

Take the story of Public, the smallest cocktail bar in Sheffield: after refurbishing a former public toilet located under the town hall, the owner faced an increase in business rates of more than 10 times due to increased property value. The refurbishment and renovation may potentially be damaging to the business if the profit doesn’t catch up with the rising property value. How does this scenario encourage regeneration? The system is deemed ‘broken’ by the Treasury select committee—and rightly so.

To everyone’s frustration, changes are not happening soon enough. Is there anything we as a creative industry can do while waiting for the political debates to settle? We can and should carry on engaging with the local authorities and private owners to create a new high street vision and to test some alternative uses.

At Sheppard Robson our cross-sector expertise allows us to create solutions for the former department stores—from boutique hotels and student resi, to contemporary open plan offices and workplace—all benefiting from retained and upgraded street-level retail. While a more traditional retail will continue to prosper in the cities like Manchester, Leeds or Liverpool, it is smaller towns that require a more creative approach.

We can’t rely on shoppers alone to energise our high streets. We also need to activate social functions—whether it be primary schools or doctors’ surgeries—to draw people into our city centres. For example, a primary school could be located at the upper floor of a remodelled shopping centre with an outdoor playing area on the top floor of a (former) multi-storey car park. Imagine dropping your child off at the school gate and then collecting a suit form the dry cleaners, then grabbing an artisan coffee and a sourdough bagel from a local bakery—all under the same roof. Or popping into a book exchange community room on the way home in the afternoon. These types of community spaces have been included in the traditional shopping centres—like the Reading Room in Parkhourse Shopping Centre Huddersfield or the libraries incorporated into retail centres owned by Ellandi. However, if we are going to really solve the issues, both socially and financially, we need to think more broadly about the radical reuse of these prominent chunks of our cities.

In the days of awoken environmental consciousness and the battle against urban solitude and isolation, sheer consumerism is not a solution. What we need is an inclusive and caring community. My son is currently reading a book by Zahid Hussain called ‘The Curry Mile’—an insightful and humorous story of Rusholme’s famous high street and a story of continuous transformation within a multicultural setting. It is time to create similar stories in other towns and cities through the built environment and regeneration of our high streets.

Natalia Maximova

Associate Partner