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.


America's cities can't police their way out of this crisis

Police deployed tear gas during anti-racism demonstrations in Los Angeles over the weekend. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

As protesters took to the streets across the United States over the weekend to express their anger at police killings of unarmed black Americans, it was hard to miss the hypocrisy coming from local authorities – including the otherwise progressive, left-leaning officials who are in power in most major American cities. 

Many US mayors and their police chiefs had issued public statements over the past week that seemed – only briefly, as it turned out – to signal a meaningful shift in the extent to which the Black Lives Matters movement is being taken seriously by those who are in a position to enact reforms. 

The sheer depravity of the most recent high-profile killing had left little room for equivocation. George Floyd, 46, died last Monday under the knee of white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, while three additional officers helped to hold Floyd down, doing nothing to aid him as he begged for them to stop and eventually lost consciousness. The officers had been attempting to arrest Floyd on suspicion of having used a counterfeit $20 bill at a deli. All four have since been fired, and Chauvin was arrested Friday on charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. 

“The lack of compassion, use of excessive force, or going beyond the scope of the law, doesn’t just tarnish our badge—it tears at the very fabric of race relations in this country,” Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore told the Washington Post in response to the Floyd case. Meanwhile Moore’s boss, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, on Friday claimed that he understood why his city, which is no stranger to police brutality, was protesting. “We absolutely need as a nation, certainly as a city, to voice our outrage, it’s our patriotic duty to not only stand up for George Floyd but for everybody who has been killed unnecessarily, who’s been murdered for the structural racism that we have in our country,” Garcetti said. 

Normally, US police chiefs and mayors tend to ask citizens to withhold judgment on these types of cases until full investigations can be completed. But a 10-minute video recording of Floyd’s killing had made what happened plain. Police chiefs across the country – and even the nation’s largest police union, which is notorious for defending officer abuses – similarly condemned the actions of the Minneapolis officers, in a rare show of moral clarity that, combined with the arrest of Chauvin, offered at least a glimmer of hope that this time things might be different. 

As the events of the weekend have since shown, that glimmer was all too fleeting. 

In city after city over the past three days, US mayors and their police chiefs made a series of the same decisions – starting with the deployment of large, heavily armed riot units – that ultimately escalated violent confrontations between officers and protesters. Images widely shared on social media Saturday and Sunday nights made it clear that members of law enforcement were often initiating the worst of the violence, and appeared to treat protesters as enemy combatants, rather than citizens they were sworn to protect. 

In New York City, two police SUVs were seen plowing into a crowd of protesters, while elsewhere an officer was recorded pulling down a young protester’s coronavirus mask in order to pepper spray his face

In Louisville, the city where Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman was fatally shot by police on 13 March, state police in riot gear were captured confiscating and destroying protesters’ supplies

In Minneapolis, forces opened fire with nonlethal rounds on residential streets, much to the shock of homeowners standing on their own front porches. 

Images of police pushing or shoving peaceful protesters were almost too numerous to count, including, in Salt Lake City, an elderly man with a cane

In many places, police also targeted journalists who were covering the protests, firing at clearly identifiable media crews with rubber bullets, injuring and even arresting reporters

Some protesters did commit acts of vandalism and looting, and the leaders of cities where that happened generally responded in the same ways. 

First, they blamed “outside agitators” for the worst protester behaviour, a claim that harkens all the way back to the civil rights era and for which the evidence is murky at best

Next, they enacted sudden curfews with little to no warning, which gave law enforcement an excuse to make mass arrests, in some cases violently. 

In a pair of widely criticized moves, Garcetti of Los Angeles closed the city’s Covid-19 testing centers and suspended the entire mass transit system Saturday evening, stranding essential workers on their way home from daytime shifts. Late Sunday night in Chicago, the city’s public school system halted its free meal distribution service for low-income children, citing “the evolving nature of activity across the city”.  

Governors in at least 12 US states, in coordination with city leaders, have since called in National Guard troops to “help”. 

At this point it’s clear that the leaders of America’s cities are in desperate need of a radically different playbook to respond to these protests. A heavily armed, militarised response to long-simmering anger toward the heavily armed, militarised approach to American policing is more than ironic – it’s ineffective. Granting police officers wider latitude to make arrests via curfews also seems destined to increase the chances of precisely the tragic, racially biased outcomes to which the protesters are reacting. 

There are other options. In places such as Flint, Michigan, and Camden, New Jersey – both poor cities home to large black populations – local law enforcement officials chose to put down their weapons and march alongside protesters, rather than face off against them. In the case of Camden, that the city was able to avoid violent clashes is in no small part related to the fact that it took the drastic step of disbanding its former police department altogether several years ago, replacing it with an entirely new structure. 

America’s cities are in crisis, in more ways than one. It’s not a coincidence that the country has tipped into chaos following months of emotionally draining stay-at-home orders and job losses that now top 40 million. Low-income Americans of colour have borne a disproportionate share of the pandemic’s ravages, and public health officials are already worried about the potential for protests to become Covid-19 super-spreading events.

All of this has of course been spurred on by the US president, who in addition to calling Sunday for mayors and governors to “get tough” on protesters, has made emboldening white nationalists his signature. Notably, Trump didn’t call on officials to get tough on the heavily armed white protesters who stormed the Michigan Capitol building over coronavirus stay-at-home orders just a few weeks ago. 

US mayors and their police chiefs have publicly claimed that they do understand – agree with, even – the anger currently spilling out onto their streets. But as long as they continue to respond to that anger by deploying large numbers of armed and armored law enforcement personnel who do not actually live in the cities they serve, who appear to be more outraged by property damage and verbal insults than by the killings of black Americans at the hands of their peers, and who are enmeshed in a dangerously violent and racist policing culture that perceives itself to be the real victim, it is hard to see how this crisis will improve anytime soon. 

Sommer Mathis is the editor of CityMetric.