Here are five ways to save Britain’s struggling high streets

Shoppers in Nottingham in 2009. Image: Getty.

The high street, or the main shopping area, has always been the heart of any UK town or city. But over the last ten years, it’s significance has dwindled. Over 28,000 stores have closed, and footfall has been on a “relentless downward trend”. While commentators often blame store closures on online shopping and poor footfall on the weather, our research uncovered a rather different problem.

Retail, society, technology and consumers are – and always have been – locked in continuous and interlinking cycles of change. This means a huge range of variables has affected shopping areas over the past 150 years. We put together a team from five universities, to find out what causes high streets to succeed or fail. Our findings from the High Street UK 2020 project identified 201 factors that influence the vitality and financial viability of the high street.

In fact, very few people go into town to visit one place; instead, the high street represents a whole bundle of benefits, including employment, education, healthcare, leisure, shopping, eating and drinking. So, for the location to be successful, the providers of these individual services need to work together effectively.

We found that the main reason high streets are struggling is that local councils and businesses have been slow to adapt to changes – they just don’t seem to be able to work and act together. Individual organisations were not used to collaborating, and wanted to know how, collectively, to improve their high street. Here’s what we suggest:

Closed for commuters. Image: mhofstrand/Flickr/creative commons.

1. Get the timing right

In our study, we identified 25 actions that will increase footfall on British high streets.

First, ensure trading hours meet visitors’ needs. Many shops and services are stuck in a nine-to-five trading pattern, which doesn’t reflect the time people want to use them – especially in places with many commuters.

2. Mix it up

Ensure the mix of retailers and other services on the high street is providing the right offering to consumers. Many shops complement one another: a single town may sustain a butcher, a greengrocers, a convenience store and a bakery, for example. But if any of these shut, it has consequences for other shops, as consumers see the individual shops as part of a package that collectively meets their shopping needs.

Our research shows it’s not just retail that consumers are looking for, so a thorough understanding of who’s using the town and why is key. But since landlords are free to let their properties to whomever they please, managing the overall offer of a location is challenging.

If visitors cannot satisfy their needs, all in one place, then they are motivated to find a new location. So it should come as no surprise that footfall in out-of-town retail parks has increased, as they diversify their offering, with bars, restaurants, cinemas and gyms.

3. Spruce up the street

The appearance of the high street is also important. Large projects such as street improvements and better lighting can attract more people.

But, it can be as simple as ensuring roads and pavements are clean. All too often, litter can blight the high street, putting people off coming, and businesses off investing.

4. Have a plan

There needs to be a cohesive vision and strategy for the location, shared by as many people as possible. This is how the local council, businesses, public services and local people can be encouraged to develop their piece of the overall offering in line with an overall plan, which outlines a realistic function for the high street.

Research by Manchester Metropolitan and Cardiff University has identified four functions for UK high streets, based on analysis of over ten years of hourly footfall data, supplied by Springboard.

Shopping is the main purpose in only about a quarter of UK towns. Other locations are centres of employment and drivers of the local economy, or serve the everyday community needs of locals, or attract day visitors or holiday makers, who may do some shopping, but are more interested in other things.

The businesses and decision makers in many town centres just do not know what function their town should be serving. A strategy can identify and communicate the purpose of a town, its aspirations and attract investment from both public and private sectors.

5. Service with a smile

These measures can help raise the quality of the high street experience. A customer’s positive experiences with several different retailers and service outlets can be completely negated by a surly taxi driver or a dark and foreboding car park.

A friendly face. Image: riversideavondale/Flickr/creative commons.

A quick review of Tripadvisor can identify problem areas, and a sense of collective responsibility, community or pride may encourage some operators to improve. Initiatives that improve customer experience across a whole town or city, such as mystery shopping, followed up by customer service training can also help.

Making it happen

We don’t underestimate the challenge ahead. All of these interventions require collective action and decision-making, which can be difficult, given the way most towns and cities are governed. Unlike in Europe, where town centres are managed in partnerships between local government and businesses, many places in the UK do not have this mechanism in place.

Collaboration is key to success, so new governance and management models are needed. Over 250 traditional retail areas in the UK have already voted to become a Business Improvement District (BID), where retailers pay an additional levy to fund exactly the type of initiatives identified by our research. Securing agreement for a BID gives all concerned the motivation and tools they need to work together.

The ConversationWe expect more locations will adopt the Business Improvement District model, but they don’t have to. Most important is that people work together. No one developer, planning officer, retail manager, mayor, concerned citizen or market trader can change the fortune of their high street. So, we predict that people who have the skills to facilitate collaboration and coordinate local action will play a starring role in the next episode of the high street story.

Cathy Parker, Professor of Marketing and Retail Enterprise, Manchester Metropolitan University; Simon Quin, Visiting Professor of Place Management, Manchester Metropolitan University, and Steve Millington, Senior Lecturer, Manchester Metropolitan University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 

The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.