The British High Street – Endangered species in 2005. Hopeful revival in 2020. What is their story?

Ask people and the main culprit is online shopping. But the high street was dying long before you could click ‘Buy’ and receive your widgets the next day. The death of the high street was a slow affair.

In 2009, the Halifax estate agents recorded the most common street names across the UK. The top three were High Street, Station Road and Main Street. But the ‘high street’ in its wider usage isn’t about one street per village or town. Instead, much like using the Pentagon for the wider US military establishment or Whitehall for the UK political system, it symbolises rather than describes. That’s called metonymy and for extra tongue-twisting points check out synecdoche and metalepsis, two subtypes of metonymy. Next time you play Scrabble, count your blessings for getting so many Ys.

High Street in Scotland.
A popular for shopping and dining walking High Street in Inverness historical city centre, Scotland, October 2017

Leaving the Greek language shenanigans aside, the British High Street is an institution. It means different thing – a stand-in for a Britain of yore, a street of chain stores with no personality or a bougie revival of organic cafes and vintage shops full of hipster students. At any rate, the very story of the high street disappoints many. The physical streets are still there and in many ways are better, with running water, electricity and in some cases even Wi-Fi (unthinkable for the 1950s, when Wi-Fi signal was so bad nobody even bothered to report on it).

But the story of the high street tells us more than first meets the eye and guides us on how to fix it. 

The history bit

In a sense, the history of the high street is shared with that of store chains until 1980. High streets changed around the 18th century to mean the part of a small town or village where the shops clustered. In the Victorian era and until the advent of department stores and supermarkets, the high street defined commerce in places like Chester Arcade, Crawley High Street and Wellington in (new town) Telford all trace their heyday to the late 1800s when the British Empire’s commerce drew produce from the Isles and far beyond into the local shops of (mostly middle-class) Britons in the town and village alike. 

Wellington High Street in Telford, Shropshire.
Grayling/VISA – Wellington high street, Telford, Shropshire for Great British High Street. 31 July 2019.

Bear in mind an important part of high streets even as late as 1910 was itinerant traders, mobile markets and the arcades. Fixed shopfronts and established commercial real estate that we associate with high streets were mostly the more successful and higher margin businesses. To afford a lease or (earlier on) to buy the shop outright you needed serious dolla. This is why most high streets had and in some cases still have a square nearby, dedicated to Wednesday or Saturday markets.

Around the 1840s to 1870s, we saw the first large scale businesses in retail: co-operatives, multiple chains (W.H. Smiths, Singer’s sewing machine chain and J Menzies in Scotland  – originally a newsagents, now an aviation company) and department stores (BHS, Selfridges, John Lewis). In 1875, only 29 businesses across the UK retailed in more than two shops. 

As of 1915, partly because of much more variety in goods offered, there were over 400 and the average number of branches per firm had shot up to 50.

The cooperative model offered an interesting alternative. With its democratic ideals of member-ownership and worker empowerment, they experienced high growth rates well through WW1, the interwar and the rationing and reconstruction after the Battle of Britain. 

It was around the 1960s that the cooperative lost ground. But even at their peak around 1950, the cooperative model only accounted for about 15% of Britain’s retail spending, before dipping to below 10% in the mid 1960s. The academic argument for why this happened was changes in the retail chain to increase efficiency (and compete with standard, shareholder-owned chains) and moving stores to large out of town estates caused cooperatives to lose out on customers that identified with the parochial nature of member-ownership and a lack of focus on salesmanship.

Consumerism and the rise of non-food purchases.

The 1960s brought about more than just organisational changes – the British public bought more things that weren’t food. Clothes, furniture, shoes and kitchenware (even before electronics) all shot up in sales and proportion of income spent. 

But the most interesting trend in from the 50s to the 80s was the rise of mail order catalog purchases, from chains like Argos, Grattan and Sears (no relation to the US company). Grattan peaked in 1991, when it became the 4th biggest catalogue company, and this reflected a wider trend of shopping from catalogues that was a mainstay of the late 80s through to the mid 90s. This increase in consumerism is easy to explain – disposable incomes doubled from 1960 to 1995, taxes (esp. income tax under the Thatcher and Major governments) were cut and shipping goods became easier than ever with containers, planes and cheap imported goods helping chains beat records year after year.

One important factor here was the Retail Price Maintenance regulations and the repeal of legislation in 1964 that strengthened the bargaining position of large chains.

Notice I’ve been talking about chains so far – this is for the following reasons: First reason is that until about 1980, the high streets hadn’t been cannibalised yet by the big chains and had a more symbiotic relationship. That and there was little distinction between them as cars and out-of-town shopping weren’t widespread enough until the mid 1970s. But the prohibitive cost of petrol in the 70s meant that the number of households with one car didn’t overtake the number of households without a car until 1976. High streets were remarkably resilient and still dominated in food sales until well into the 1980s. Finally, the high street still enjoyed remarkable diversity in its shops (even if more and more were owned by the same chains – see Sears UK Plc for a shoe behemoth that owned dozens of brands). It was the age of the oligopoly, but the high streets still clung on.

The beginning of the end.

So yes, out of town shopping changed the nature of the game. and Merry Hill opened its first 3 stores by Christmas 1985, the Cribbs Causeway shopping centre in Bristol too, opened in 1998, the Trafford Centre in Manchester, also opened in 1998 and Bluewater in 1999.

I’ll focus on Merry Hill, because I believe it represents a wider trend with out of town shopping. Building massive stores out in the sticks wasn’t originally seen as a way to make it cheaper. Instead, the trend began when the government set up a number of enterprise zones in the 1980s to stimulate areas affected by steel mill and coal mine closures. Merry Hill suffered from the closure of one such steelworks – the Round Oak Steelworks closed in 1980 and by the following year the Enterprise Zone was set up with a view to promote employment back to pre-closure levels. Some high streets in Lancashire and Yorkshire never recovered from their town’s loss of income after coal mines and steelworks closed and the government tried to correct this through Enterprise Zones and permissive planning policies.

Telford and its shopping centre, opened in 1973, told a similar story. The construction of the motorways (M54 near Telford was completed around the same time as the shopping centre) was the next nail in the coffin of the high street. Large housing estates were built far away from traditional high streets. 

Shopping mall with shops and pedestrians.
Source: Pexels

And so the great exodus began. Suburbs, quick trips to nearby shopping centres on motorways, cheaper and more widely available cars, these all added up to more nails in the coffin of the high street shop. But buyer loyalty and rising incomes kept shops on the high streets afloat. 

One other element pops out in research: fridges. Refrigeration both helped and undercut the high street food shop – keeping hunks of meat fresh for longer but also having large ones anywhere meant for the first time, shipping time mattered much less for meats, vegetables and dairy products. So the bigger retailers who purchased tons of meat and veg rather than a couple dozen kilos won out, yet again.

In-town shopping centres

But as you might tell from Telford Shopping Centre – it is in the centre of town. And this brings me to in-town shopping centres. A quick look at the largest shopping centres in the UK (by visitors) has Westfield Stratford (2011), Manchester Arndale (1975), Bullring (2003) in Birmingham and St David’s Cardiff (1982) and many more. The ones built in the 1970s and 1980s changed traffic patterns in city centres. City centres are too large to have one singular high street, instead the concept of shopping district comes into play. But in the case of Arndale in central Manchester affected Oldham Street nearby and forced many high street shops to close or relocate.

While out-of-town shopping centres and hypermarkets only drew traffic away from the edges of town, where population density was lower anyway, in-town shopping centres directly competed with existing high streets and even shopping districts. 

Again, planning permissions and the desire to replace often dilapidated neighbourhoods and buildings (Arndale replaced an area reported as a crime den in the 1960s) meant shopping centres had priority over incumbent high streets. 

The high street was nowhere near the foot traffic and revenue share it had in the 1950s by the end of the century but it was weakened by local authority policies, heavy competition from the concentrated shopping centres and supermarkets. And that fragility meant it was not prepared for what came next – a force unlike anything before it. The Internet.

The Internet and clone towns.

Catalog shopping may have been the predecessor to internet shopping, but (if we exclude the dot.com craze in 1999-2001) internet commerce in the UK hit hard and it hit fast. By 2008, 53% of shoppers in the UK had bought at least one item online. And with the first food delivery services in the mid-2010s (JustEat, then Deliveroo and UberEats) , even restaurants struggled. I won’t spend too much time on internet shopping as the effects are pretty obvious and even as e-commerce only started taking flight in the early 2000’s, those effects were visible.

By 2005, there was already concern in government and communities about the future of the British high street. The NEF released a 2005 report (based on a survey started in 2004) called Clone Towns. The NEF argued in the report there had been a Great Thinning in the later 1990s and early 2000s as a result of planning policies, deceptive bids and chains that strong-armed local authorities.

Even then, the British public had a sense of profound unease (according to the report anyway) about the uniformity of high streets. The idea of chains had reached an endpoint that didn’t sit right – the reliability of having a store in Solihull the same as one in Southampton meant that once enough chains followed onto a particular high street, it was a case of ‘Everywhere and Nowhere, all at once’. 

High Street in Reading. The Clone Town report points out to Reading as one of the most 'cloned' towns in Britain.
Source: Berkshire Live

The survey pointed out something interesting on top of all that – the clone towns that fared worst, with the most large chains in its shopfronts, also had lower variety of services provided. In other words, fewer categories of stores on the high street.

But if you thought the 2000s were bad for the butchers and cobblers, independent clothes retailers and furniture stores unaffiliated with BHS or some other large chain, you wouldn’t believe what happened next.

2008. In what can only be described as short-termism, chain after chain expanded into towns and even the same high street as their competitor (sounds ok at first, they have to try and beat their competition, right?) and then on the same street as themselves in the name of convenience and capturing more of the same foot-traffic.

This expansion worked when debt was cheap and no one asked to see your balance sheet too closely. But 2008 happened. And chain after chain went bust. Arcadia (the successor to Sears), Woolworths, MFI, Virgin Megastores/Zavvi, BHS and a hundred other chains collapsed in the years following the credit crunch. Whether it was bad investments, overextension or failure to adapt to the new online medium, they went under and left crater-sized holes in the average high street.

The replacements in many cases were lackluster – vape shops, betting houses and Primark (nothing against them, their business model has worked so far). The argument that only discount or budget stores survive is flawed, seeing how in shopping centres (where foot traffic is now concentrated)

Solutions, solutions, solutions

If I’d written this in 2019, there would’ve been a dozen or so items on this list. But with the coronavirus crisis, even when lockdowns are released, foot-traffic-reliant businesses will struggle. High streets will struggle, especially if they’re not also present online. 

But I pride myself on finding a silver lining in anything and the reality is physical stores still serve a purpose – trying out, seeing in person and prestige purchases. The fight has been unfair for a long time. Whether you look at land prices, council taxes or the free parking at many shopping centres out of town, high streets have been left behind. This has to be part of the solution.

High street with colourful flags and Victorian buildings. Pedestrians walk past pubs and shops.
Source: Hannah Walsh

One concept hailing from New York of all places is Business Improvement Districts (BIDs), where businesses pool resources together in the form of an additional tax that is earmarked specifically for cleaning, tree maintenance and general repairs to the shared area like pedestrian walkways. Camden Town in North London and Manchester are seen as early successes, having been lauded for their implementation as early as 2013. 

Here’s a collated list of solutions: 

  • Changing trading hours to out of work to reflect changing shopping patterns, 
  • Refocusing community services like post offices and banking into the high street, 
  • Turning it pedestrian, adding more trees and outdoor seating (proven to increase family shopping as opposed to individual shopping).
  • Creating joining BIDs to have shops cooperate in keeping their shopping district alive and maintained.
  • Adapting planning permissions and zoning laws. There is a surplus of the wrong kind of commercial space (usually showroom-style), 
  • Electric car charging points to drive traffic and discounted parking for shoppers.
  • Local authority ownership of the high street (see Plymouth and Liverpool, where units owned by the social sector are a third less likely to be vacant, compared to real estate company-owned ones).
  • Adapting business rates.
  • Summer fairs and Christmas markets. Experience and community-driven shops have customers spending more time in-store or at stalls.
  • Adapting the high street economy to the cycle of the local mix (which might be mostly young families, one-person households, HMOs, 9-5 workers, shift workers, etc.),
  • Wider availability of NFC/contactless shopping in independent stores.
  • Increasing leisure services provided on high streets to reflect changes in British consumption patterns. British consumers spend far less on their food shop than they used to. The small margins on food sales and high space requirements for display purposes is partly what drove independent greengrocers out of business. This leaves more of our time and income on leisure.

The list of suggestions is endless and given that research done immediately after the recession revealed little, it’s crucial to allow local authorities to decide which mix of policies they implement based on local factors. The High Streets Fund offered by the government has brought about £1bn to the table for over 50 towns and many local authorities have switched to the town-centre first policy in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

The sum-up

After the lockdowns and social distancing measures abate, footfall will come back. Many businesses might be gone by then. But the high streets will remain and they can be brought back, although they won’t look the same as they used to. The days of the cobbler and fishmonger in every street are gone. 

It takes years, maybe decades to right the imbalances established over decades of suburbanisation and car-first policy, but the high street can come back, in 21st century form.

I’d like to end on a quote by the great philosopher Mick Jagger: “You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes, you’ll find you get what you need.”

References:

  1. History of the British high street 1800 – 1915: https://www.ehs.org.uk/dotAsset/81a60207-6ed1-4ed0-823f-e882d76d02ba.pdf
  2. History post 1920: http://epubs.surrey.ac.uk/820800/1/SRI%20Alexander%20British%20Retail%20History%20%20Routledge%20Companion%20Marketing%20History2016.pdf
  3. Car ownership numbers : https://www.racfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/car-ownership-in-great-britain-leibling-171008-report.pdf
  4. Merry Hill Shopping Centre: https://web.archive.org/web/20120402115711/http://www.the-blackcountry.com/images/Study/centre%20retail%20outlets%20may%202006.pdf
  5. Largest shopping centres statistics: https://www.globaldata.com/ground-breaking-report-sheds-new-light-on-uks-best-performing-shopping-centres/
  6. Online Shopping statistics: https://www.statista.com/statistics/275968/online-purchasing-penetration-in-great-britain/
  7. Clone Towns report by NEF: https://b.3cdn.net/nefoundation/1733ceec8041a9de5e_ubm6b6t6i.pdf
  8. A blog post about a more personal experience in Walsall by Paul Robert Lloyd: https://paulrobertlloyd.com/2018/08/clone_towns/
  9. BIDs: http://www.lse.ac.uk/Research/research-impact-case-studies/reviving-british-town-centres-high-streets
  10. Some solutions: https://www.citymetric.com/business/here-are-five-ways-save-britain-s-struggling-high-streets-3865
  11. https://www.powertochange.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/PCT_3619_High_Street_Pamphlet_FINAL_LR.pdf
  12. If you’re addicted to detail: http://www.riben.org.uk/Cluster_publications_%26_media/BRITISH%20HIGH%20STREETS_MARCH2015.pdf
  13. https://genius.com/The-rolling-stones-you-cant-always-get-what-you-want-lyrics

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