What’s the future of the British high street?

By Ikràn.M.Omar @IkranM

Confronted with e-commerce and evolving shopping habits the future of the British high street has never been so clouded.

Today the high street is no longer the only destination. Both e-commerce and the allure of behemoth out-of-town shopping centres have irreparably altered consumer habits placing high streets across the country in an empty grey void, ghosts of their former selves. First hit hard by the recession then by the austerity which hit the poor harder than the rich, Britain’s once booming commercial centres have become home to boarded up shops, bookies, pawn shops or yet another fast food restaurant specialising in breaded chicken.

Across London and the country, high streets lay characterless and seem to only come alive in the run up to Christmas or during sale periods. To get consumers and life back to local high streets there needs to not only be places to shop, but also places where local people can socialise and places where people can get specialities that they can’t acquire in Tesco or Westfield.

One scheme that the government has put forward is a billion pound local businesses boost that will give a break to small business and whilst proving much-needed entertaining spaces in high streets such as restaurant and pubs. This came into force in April of this year having been announced in 2013 by communities secretary Eric Pickles.

The scheme is likely to aid and create more local jobs and presented a much-needed boost to start-up businesses, many of whom close in under a year because of high and excessive rents imposed by landlords. During the recession, 78 per cent of all shops that opened were independent local shops according to research done by London School of Economics. Independent small stores can bring new life to the high street and identity, whilst promoting local specialities and the local economy. Independent stores can also provide local jobs, but to exist they need a tax break.

Small business can’t compete with the spending power of Arcadia Group or Westfield and Hammerson, which just got the go ahead in June 2014 to open a new £1 billion Westfield shopping centre in Croydon. The South London Westfield will be London’s third shopping centre and will most likely pull shoppers away from their local high street like a moth to flame. Planners of the yet-to-be named shopping centre currently known as the South London or Croydon Westfield are promising 5,000 new jobs, most going to local residents. But will the South London Westfield create a ripple effect that will be felt not only in Croydon, but also in surrounding South London high streets?

The ripple effect of White City Westfield is clear in Shepherds Bush high street which stands derelict as shoppers head to the Westfield shopping centre and businesses close. In West London alone over 9,000 stores are standing empty as shopping centres like Westfield offer varieties that local high streets cannot offer. The pulling power of a shopping centre is the variety of shops not found in high streets and offering places where people can socialise and park without worrying about parking. Shopping centres are not the only competition high street face, there is also e-commerce with online retailers such as Net A Porter, Asos and Boohoo getting a chunk of the retail market and shoppers. Then there is the umbrella effect of supermarkets everything they can under one roof.

As the economy picks up, the government is coming out with different schemes they hope would save the ailing British high street. Other than helping small independent business, the other thing that could get shoppers back to the local high and save the ailing high street is parking. The lack of space to park and fines and clamping has driven shoppers away from their local high street. The government has recently announced a £2 million test run scheme it hopes would help shoppers. Before leaving their homes, shoppers would be able to alert their desired shops and pre-book their parking space with a mobile app. Shopping centres specialise in such parking initiatives, so if the high street can do the same, perhaps it can compete.

The local high street is facing an uphill battle but without the high street our cities would be soulless. We need to reignite the value we once placed on small and independent businesses in order to re-inject character into our cities. The curtain hasn’t fallen yet.

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