Building Futures recently gathered at BDP for a debate interrogating the future of the high street, specifically the impact of technology on the future of retail and our social attitudes.

Architect Tom Young was present in the audience and has very kindly contributed a review of the evening.

‘The hoary topic of the future of high streets got a vigorous airing yesterday at BDP’s offices. The event was part of the Building Futures programme, and the motion was that the high street is dead and the future of social and retail arenas is online.

Those opposing the motion included Peter Drummond, Chief Executive of BDP,  who was supported by Euan Mills, an upcoming urbanist, well-known in East London for his effective masterminding of the new Chatsworth Road weekend market in Hackney.

The proposers were Anne-Marie Laing and Hugh Flouch. The first is a specialist turnaround consultant working on behalf of ailing retailers nationally.  Hugh Flouch is an entrepreneur who creates new applications of mobile technology to connect the online and local worlds.

The motion’s advocates made expected points about online business booming and industry-wide expectations for more online sales and fewer shop sales. There was tough talk about giving up the “romance of the high street” and paying more attention to “how people are really behaving”. People go online for best value and quality.

Mr Flouch told us all about mobile apps and shopping from a small screen while on the hoof. He made good points about high streets in hopeless locations for which there are no realistic plans for survival. A death spiral of pound shops and worse was all he could foresee for these places in the short term. They will not benefit from mobile apps linking the online shopping audience to real places.

Like everyone else, Mr Flouch expressed his affection for high streets. No one was prepared to say they weren’t supporters, although Mills made a point about his own online shopping for groceries. Perhaps it might have been better if the event organisers had found a proper Dalek to make the case for Amazon warehouses instead of high streets.

Drummond, whose name somehow captures a bit of his genial, happy-dad persona, talked about past predictions of the end of high streets. Television shopping, shopping centres and retail parks have all been mooted as high street killers. It hasn’t turned out that way.

He asked a series of rhetorical questions: are there too many shops? Probably. Can we expect some high streets to close down? Yes. Are retailers expecting most of their sales in the future to come from online? No.

Euan Mills asked where we’re going put gyms, dentists, doctors surgeries, convenience shops, churches and temples, offices, estate agents, hairdressers, repair shops and the like. Artisanal bakers were hardly mentioned, curiously. There were interesting reports on eBay’s pop-up shop campaign in the US. And quite a bit about “click and collect”.

Drummond said the serious issues for high streets are mismanagement and neglect by local authorities that ignore their own policies while extracting not indecent tax revenues. He gave the example of Finchley High St as a setting clobbered by aggressive parking regulation, general indifference to traders and customer needs, yet generating £2 million a year for Barnet Council. He also spoke about local government’s failure to implement town-centre-first planning policy. “If they did what they’re meant to be doing…” was his gripe.

Drummond also thought the tax immunity of online businesses like Amazon should be dealt with.

Everyone accepted that there’s nowhere to hide from change. High streets will decline horribly unless they develop ways to work with online sales. Flouch’s organisation Neighbourhood Networks is all about making “online local”. Mills agreed pointing to new businesses like Parcel-Plus and Hub-bub, both of which use the high street as a depot for their customers.

An audience member said our society is “congregational” – we come together to do things like shopping, and the coming together is as important as the thing we’re doing. This related well to a point made about local government’s responsibility for making places, and the historic role of high streets as settings for important processions and public rituals e.g the Wooton Bassett repatriation parades. There were arguments about the inadequacy of retail parks and shopping centres as public places.

There was by the end general agreement that the future will bring an end to some high streets, that big retailers will probably need fewer outlets, that shops will struggle with their margins if they are unable to offer anything except standard product lines, and that online represents an advantage for existing businesses if they know how to use it.

Landlords came in for criticism. An interesting line of argument turned on their perniciously high expectations of a return from their property. A member of the audience spoke about the need to reset expectations. Drummond opined that it is reasonable to expect rents to go down – they are already. Laing argued that if this doesn’t happen fast enough, it will contribute to the demise of high streets.

Yet others in the audience noted the absence of “turnover rental agreements” in the UK. Apparently they’re much more common in Holland. This point was generalised into a call for “more intelligent landlords” or “landlords with a plan” to work alongside “intelligent local authorities”.

Points were made about an aging population and need for old people to overcome isolation and the role high streets will play meeting this need. High streets, it was noted, have a direct relationship to surrounding residential neighbourhoods and this is an obvious “structural” strength.

The vote at the end of the debate went expectedly. That shouldn’t disguise the fact that the discussion was interesting and vigorous. The most vociferous contribution came at the start of the Q&A session when the speakers were addressed and accused of being too intellectual and discounting “poor people” who keep high streets going. It kicked things off nicely and drew a spontaneous round of applause.’

Tom Young
Tom Young Architects

Building Futures’s next event, on Tuesday 6 November, will look at the role that England’s core cities currently play in the national economy and consider whether or not London receives too much attention. Speakers include Tony Travers and Michael Parkinson. Full details on our website.


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