COVID-19 has presented us with an opportunity to radically transform the high street in towns and villages across Britain. Once the epicentre of community life, the high street has been in decline for years. A number of factors have contributed to this, namely: (i) the proliferation of online shopping, which has given large corporations the ability to offer products for cheaper than on the high street; (ii) the increased availability of global products online; and (iii) the proliferation of commuter towns, resulting in many workers spending the majority of their time outside their local communities.
COVID-19 has hastened this decline, with the deep scars that pandemic restrictions and the resulting recession will leave on our economy, particularly the retail and hospitality sectors, potentially bringing an end to the high street as we know it. Furthermore, many commuters are likely to spend more time living and working in their communities after COVID-19, with YouGov reporting that over 57% of workers want greater flexibility on hours and location. Now is therefore the time to think radically about reforming our high streets.
Several policies have been suggested to improve the prospects of our high streets, and undoubtedly some will be trialled as a result of Future High Streets funding. However, none of these are enough to stop the decline. For example, plans to bring in new private investment to take up empty shops, or to regenerate public assets, or even to transform shop fronts into housing, are likely to provide, at best, short-term cash injections to local economies. They will not stem the decline of the high street over the long-term.
The determination to ‚’Build Back Better‚’ after the pandemic provides the opportunity to radically transform our high streets so that they can drive local growth and bring our communities together.