Saving Britain’s High Streets – what can we learn from our European cousins?


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The state of Britain’s High Streets is a subject I have blogged about in the past – here are three of my most recent posts:

  1. I’m not paying to park! Why the British High Street might be struggling (October 2012) – http://ijgolding.com/2012/10/18/im-not-paying-to-park-why-the-british-high-street-might-be-struggling/
  2. Stop talking and act NOW!! Is it too late for our high streets? (March 2013) –  http://ijgolding.com/2013/03/14/stop-talking-and-act-now-is-it-too-late-for-our-high-streets/
  3. ‘What a brilliant day!’ How communities can help revive Britain’s High Streets (July 2013) – ( http://ijgolding.com/2013/07/08/what-a-brilliant-day-how-communities-can-help-revive-britains-high-streets/).

Regrettably the subject is one that seems to get more and more significant on a weekly basis. An article in Saturdays Telegraph stated that ‘half of high street retailers are in danger of closing down’. The article pointed towards the release of a report by Bill Grimsey tomorrow. The report unsurprisingly will confirm that our high streets continue their rapid decline. You can read the Telegraph article here – http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/newsbysector/retailandconsumer/10278443/Half-of-high-street-retailers-in-danger-of-closing-down.html.

The reasons for the demise have been well publicised over the last couple of years. There has also been a huge amount of posturing from retail ‘experts’ and politicians about the causes and potential solutions. It is pretty clear that nothing appears to be working at the moment. I have visited a number of high streets in the last few weeks – Chester, Stockport and Redhill to name but three – with boarded up shops a plenty, it is not a very nice thing to see. It really is astonishing that a problem which is so visible is still not being addressed by central and local government.

If only something could be done about high street business rates – NOW. If only something could be done about parking restrictions and charges in and around high streets – NOW. Last Sunday, I spotted a traffic warden, or ‘enforcement officer’ (as a Twitter contact advised me they are now called). It was 4:23pm. Is it really necessary to ‘police’ parking in this manner in and around streets that desperately need customers. Surely we can have a break from this kind of thing on Sunday of all days…….we certainly used to! Local councils continuing obsession with raising money from parking fines is contributing to a far greater loss.

Putting existing challenges to one side for the moment, the major reason for creating this latest edition of my ‘British High Street Series’ is to share my thoughts on how we could look to Europe for some inspiration in our quest to ‘save the high street’. I have just spent two weeks driving through Northern Spain and Southern France. Whilst the primary objective was to enjoy a well-earned holiday, my mind never switches off when it comes to customer experience and customer service.

One thing that strikes me whenever I am in this part of the world is how different the centre of cities and towns feel. In Spain, the centre is usually denoted by a square, or ‘plaza de la ciudad’. The square is usually surrounded by bars and restaurants, and acts amongst other things as a social meeting place. The surrounding streets are full of boutiques, larger retail outlets and more bars and restaurants. In general, towns and cities feel less ‘commercial’ – they are not overrun by Tesco Express, or Costa Coffee. They appear to have a far greater proportion of independently run retailers and food operators. That is not to say that ‘multiple’ retailers are not in city centres. They are, but seem to nestle in amongst the independents, rather than take over.

Independent shops are run largely by families – families who have run their businesses for generations. It is in their heart and soul. Whilst the level of service can sometimes be considered a little brusque, that is only the nature of their culture and not a reflection on the quality of service they deliver. Out of town superstores and malls are becoming more common. Larger retailers operate in abundance here. We visited one in La Coruna last year (Marinada City) – it was impressive. The big difference is that the things you could get at Marinada City, you could not get in the city centre (and vice versa).

Marinada City in La Coruna, Northern Spain
Marinada City in La Coruna, Northern Spain

This got me thinking (dangerous I know) – why do we not help our British towns and cities to re-design their high streets in a similar way. Instead of ‘blaming’ out of town superstores and shopping centres for taking trade away from the high street, why not encourage large, multiple retailers to leave the high street to go to them. Let’s create more space for independent, family run businesses to populate our town centres. If we can make it affordable, and incentivise people to take up retail space, it is a bit of a no brainer. Independent retailers often offer a very different experience to ‘chains’. With innovative and unique products not usually sold by the big boys, and more personal, friendly and engaging customer service, the high street could become far more of a browse and buy destination. Visiting the high street could become the social event it once used to be – a bit of shopping, followed by a drink or meal in a bar or restaurant.

In France, especially Southern France, the difference is even more stark. Their is almost no evidence at all in the centre of towns of big multiple retailers. They exist, but away from the centre. The town acts as the meeting place – the centre of operations. Weekly markets still operate as they have done for decades. Locals and tourists alike throng to them on a weekly basis to see what local independent traders have to offer. If you want mass market produce, you can get it out of town – but if you want locally produced, well priced products, come to the town centre.

0 french market

Whilst we cannot physically rebuild our town centres to recreate the Spanish town square, we can certainly consider the effect of encouraging our town centres to be the domain of independent retailing. The combination of permanent independent stores, supplemented by weekly street markets could create something we cannot currently get from our big chain retailers. What this model also does is provide something you cannot currently get online – a physical retail experience. Coming to the high street should and could be an event. A day out. A place to meet friends and family. The experience of the town centre can quite happily be supported by, and even complemented by big out-of-town retail offerings and our continuing reliance on the convenience of online.

Could this become a reality? Why not? BUT…..there is always one of those…..mind-sets and attitudes need to change. Stop charging ridiculous rates that make it impossible for independent retailers to survive. Stop creating barriers that make customers think twice about visiting town centres – such as parking charges. Can it really happen – I certainly hope so. What do you think?

8 thoughts on “Saving Britain’s High Streets – what can we learn from our European cousins?

  1. The traditional mid-market “baseload” retail trade is largely lost to High Streets now and is never coming back, so I think you are right that they need to be reimagined as firstly a kind of communal civic centre for the area and secondly to concentrate on the kind of retail activities and businesses where touching and feeling is either essential or highly desirable. The retail economy needs to be better linked to the entertainment economy.

    However, a further point is that many town centres are now disproportionately used by the poorer sections of society who do not have access to cars, and this contributes to a tatty, low-rent image with a proliferation of betting shops, nail parlours, pound shops, payday loan outlets, takeaways and downmarket pubs and a sort of vicious circle of decline.

    And local authorities still really haven’t got it on parking – without free or very cheap parking in town centres for shopping-length trips (at least up to three hours) these places will continue to slowly die on their feet.

    You may be interested in this post on the subject from a couple of years ago.

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    • Many thanks for sharing this. It is comforting to know that we (like many) agree, but bewildering that the powers that be fail to act accordingly. The optimist in me is still saying that things will change!!

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  2. I don’t know if you’ve ever come across Simon Cooke’s blog, but he’s a Conservative councillor in Bradford who often comments on urban regeneration issues. This post is particularly relevant to your theme here:

    To make town centres work we need to start thinking about them differently:

    1. places of performance – planned or otherwise
    2. centres of culture not temples to shopping
    3. a locus for excitement and discovery rather than the workaday
    4. as venues for communal celebration, sharing and festivity

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  3. An interesting dimension to the discussion. Although there are some architectural and structural differences, perhaps the most important divergence is in the appreciation that our continental cousins have for local produce and local business. Here our shopping habits seem to be increasingly polarised by ‘brand’ domination, both in terms of landlord and consumer aspirations.

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  4. I find your posts really thought provoking. I have my views, but then who doesn’t? I am so driven to make local businesses succeed. In Hitchin, the market town where I live, we have wonderful food markets, bespoke traders and those taking the plunge and taking on the large chains. Good for them. The attention to finding what the customer wants/needs and their willingness to please their customers is endearing to witness. The only thing that they can’t compete on is price and, sadly, price is all that a lot of people focus on.

    Sent from my iPhone

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    • Thank you so much for your lovely words Stephanie – it means a lot. I agree with you completely. That is why attitudes need to change to make it more of a level playing field for small independent retailers. Charging them the same rates as large multiples just does not make sense. Pressure is building, so with all fingers crossed, things may change soon!!

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