Struggling high streets urgently need local councils to take the lead on leisure
By Mel Taylor, CEO of Omnico Group
Putting a smile on your face is not something for which local authorities in the UK are renowned, perhaps unfairly.
Yet the increasing trend towards combining shopping and leisure means councils up and down the land must embrace the pleasure principle if they are to revive our declining retail hubs.
It is certainly true that any high street can disappear into a fog of doom when the Centre for Retail Research predicts job losses in the sector on a scale that is larger this year (30,000) than last. Besides the dramatic shift to online shopping, excessive business rates, an inflationary exchange rate and increased minimum wage are also blamed. It is certainly true that online sales show no sign of slowing, leaping by 29 per cent year-on-year in November, according to the Office for National Statistics.
Given this background why should we be surprised when retail gurus point to the difficulties of medium-sized high streets and how vulnerable they are when an anchor-store operator either goes bust like BHS, or packs up and leaves to concentrate on digital channels?
Reasons to be cheerful
To interpret all the signs as predicting disaster is misleading however. Leisure and hospitality are fast becoming the saviours of many high streets and shopping centres. Figures supplied by analysts CACI indicate that retail outings where leisure was the chief purpose went up by 28 per cent in the last couple of years. The British Retail Consortium, meanwhile has attributed increases in high street footfall to the growing demand for the evening leisure economy. It looks as if the focus on the night-time economy that began in local government with relaxation of licensing and planning regulations, may in some measure be paying off.
The success of Westfield in Shepherd’s Bush, London, reveals how food, drink and leisure are now more than just add-ons in the retail mix – they are essentials. Think too about what is going to happen at Intu’s Lakeside Shopping Centre in Essex, where the operators announced that a theme park will be built, bringing SpongeBob SquarePants and other Nickelodeon characters to what is already a substantial retail destination. The changes in behaviour brought on by technology mean consumers increasingly migrate to locations where there is little distinction between online and the high street so they can browse, order or collect before having a quick bite to eat and taking their kids on a ride at the leisure park next to the shopping area.
The important role of local authorities
Of course projects on the scale of Lakeside are not replicable in every town across the UK, given varying levels of prosperity, infrastructure and space. Yet with the active involvement of local authorities, which are often important landlords, there is plenty of scope for high streets to pull themselves around and become more exciting hybrid destinations that bring shopping, hospitality and family entertainment together in an exciting mix.
Infrastructure is critical, with properly thought-through transport links essential. Planners in local government need to ensure routes to and from the local transport nodes and residential areas to the retail centre are convenient and safe, otherwise bottlenecks on public or private transport will kill off any initiative to stimulate more visits. In the conurbations that cover so much of the country, it is also time for more collaboration across local authority boundaries, since patterns of retail behaviour are changing very quickly. Consumers may currently visit the local high street more frequently to buy relatively small baskets of goods, but change to making a longer-lasting and longer-distance trip when the destination is larger and has more eating and drinking or leisure options.
Planning authorities also need to recognise that once visitors have arrived, wherever it is, they now want to enjoy decent-quality public spaces, rather than dark, dirty and potentially crime-ridden walkways or plazas left over from another era. The same goes for car-parking, which not only needs to be competitively priced, convenient and well-organised, but also well-maintained and secure.
Connected experiences are essential
Authorities considering regeneration schemes also need to remember that a universally good phone signal in retail spaces is now essential, enabling shoppers to go online whenever they want, whether to perform price-comparisons or simply to use social media while in a café or bar. This is no longer an optional extra but a necessity which councillors need to consider when hearing applications from telecoms providers. Connectivity is vital to providing consumers with the hassle-free, unified experience they want, combining leisure and hospitality with shopping or browsing.
When it comes to the retail spaces on offer in their high streets, authorities must also ensure there is flexibility in the range of premises available and how they are serviced and accessed. Whether as planners or landlords, local government has to face the fact that the retailers and leisure operators they seek to attract are now far more selective about the spaces they want to use. Store chains may, for example, insist on easy vehicle access to facilitate click-and-collect or to allow them to act as localised fulfilment hubs.
Big decisions may be necessary
Clearly, local authorities may have to use compulsory purchase powers if they are more ambitious and want to see failing high streets completely overhauled to accommodate an expansion of hospitality and night-time leisure activity. Even more so if they want a theme park attraction or leisure facility (such as a climbing wall or dry ski-slope) as part of the proposition. Long-term change of this order may require some long-term thinking and big decisions, including a more radical approach to traffic flows and land-acquisition.
Lastly, although many local authorities are already advanced in promoting their business and retail hubs online, they may still have to put more resources into coordinating a sophisticated, constantly-updated website with plenty of functionality that excites consumers and gives them the information they want.
The death of the high street is not a foregone conclusion. Local authorities have many powers and a wealth of experience they can deploy to boost their high streets, even if sometimes in the past they have engaged in over-optimistic partnerships. It is vital they play their full role as catalysts, enablers, movers-and-shakers, if high streets up and down the country are to be revived by the convergence of shopping, hospitality and leisure. It is a huge opportunity.