Many people are keen to read the last rites to the British high street, which is always said to be in its death throes, even if – like Charles II – it seems to take “an unconscionable time a-dying”. The rise of the car delivered the first blow decades ago. Once most people didn’t have to walk to the shops, a question mark was always going to hang over the little “parade” down the road. Malls and internet shopping have stuck the dagger in further.
The latest would-be funeral director of the high street, Chris Grigg, chief executive of British Land, says they “may continue to be used for some years to come but they are likely to become more marginal”. The future lies with malls and retail parks, apparently.
Mr Grigg is correct, up to a point. In a country as wet and windy as ours, malls clearly have a future. Why traipse down a freezing high street in a duffle coat when you can wander through a mall in mid-January in a T-shirt?
However, the idea that the future of shopping lies exclusively one way or the other is simplistic. Choice is a defining characteristic of the age, and when it comes to shopping, a growing number of people want both/and, not either/or. Malls are good for chain stores but useless for specialist outlets; and while the enclosed space keeps everyone dry, it traps noise and can be deafening and claustrophobic.
Britain would be a miserable place in which to shop if the options narrowed down to malls, retail villages and the net. But Mr Grigg’s prediction will come true if town councils do not up their game and think more creatively about the asset that so many of them appear ready to let slip through their fingers. For a start, they need to look again at parking policies that make it nigh-on impossible for drivers to shop anywhere near their high streets without paying a punitive charge for the privilege.
The Government needs to do more as well. The Communities minister, Eric Pickles, has promised to tackle what he calls “aggressive parking policies” and has offered smaller shops some financial relief. But these are only half-measures. Business rates need to be cut right back if small shops are not to be edged out of high streets entirely and the vacant sites abandoned to wealthy chains, charity shops and developers of luxury flats.
The high street is not dead but it’s certainly looking pasty. We only have ourselves to blame if the patient is allowed to expire.