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So what does the future hold?

In the last three issues I’ve talked about some of the challenges that have been facing our high streets in recent times and I hope contributed to people’s understanding of these issues.  I’ve also shared my thoughts on one possible way forward that I think, with the right structure and as full participation by all interested parties, could work in our area.  But what might the future hold? What might our high streets be like in 5-10 years’ time? Will what many see as the “high street nightmare” come true as our formerly vibrant community hubs disappear, to be replaced by rows of residential units, fitness centres and coffee shops? Or will the high street of the early 2020’s be very familiar to the customer of a decade before.  I was trying hard to avoid references to time travel there, by the way, even though I regularly see the next Dr Who walking round Crouch End…..

Firstly, my greatest, indeed dearest, hope – which I’m sure everyone reading this will share – is that independent traders will have retained a large presence, giving vibrancy and distinctiveness to each of our high streets. I believe, despite the view in some quarters that “independents” are doomed, that with a collective will, some creative thinking and the right kind of help, they will survive.

Two factors in particular may I believe help “independents” in the coming years.

Business Rate reform is firmly on the political agenda and, regardless of the “colour” of the next Government, something will happen in this regard – as I mentioned last month, Ed Miliband has fired the first shots in the battle for the small business vote.   The Retail Price Index sitting at a pre-credit crunch level of 3.2%  in October ( as the economic recovery seemingly strengthens although I have my own cautious views about the good news we’re hearing at the moment) , with a likely effect on Business Rates in 2014-15, will also increase the pressure for reform.  I’m not factoring in any direct financial support for businesses from, say, Local Authorities, in this article, as the effect of Business Rate reform on Council revenues cannot yet be gauged.

Although there’s a great diversity of opinion as to how this might be achieved, there will inevitably be a significant change to the parking control regimes in our high street – whether it’s through 15 or 30-minute amnesties, removal of double yellow lines, the reduction of or even in some places the scrapping of charges – which will make life easier for both customers and retailers. As with Business Rates, this will be a political battleground in the run-up to the next General Election and something will happen.

There can, I believe, be opportunities for succeeding generations of new businesses to emerge and thrive – something I see as critical to the retail future in our part of London. Pop-up shops may become a regular feature of  our retail landscapes as landlords see the benefits of short-terms lettings to new businesses in order to keep “lights on” by means other than the dreaded charity shops, aided by reformed Business Rates.  Market-type stalls in available space, both regular and event-driven, will add both colour to our town centres and a further opportunity for new businesses to try out their ideas.

The above could, by 2020, be assisted and underpinned by an effective retail strategy forum of the type I proposed in the last issue, which could facilitate demand-driven high streets by, amongst other functions, providing research and advice to assist in placing the right businesses in the right places, which could in turn offer landlords further options to explore in terms of potential occupiers.

The internet  and its offspring  online shopping, have, as I‘ve discussed in a previous article, brought about the virtual (no play on words intended) demise of record and book shops but on the positive side they may foster a new kind of business that could manifest itself on the high street of the future – the interactive shop, or showroom. Customers will visit, try out the goods as it were, and buy online.

One feature of our part of North London is that there has been little or no demand for “chain” shops, certainly not in terms of clothing and shoes. It’s not entirely clear whether this is a result of customer resistance to high street fashion and/or that the volume of footfall does not make our area attractive to national “names” but I don’t envisage any change there.

The proliferation of food and drink offers – cafes, restaurants and bars – will I believe slow down and stabilise at around 20% in terms of “market share”: it’s currently 17%, a fraction above the national average. I anticipate continuing strong demand for these facilities which will help our high streets maintain a thriving night-time economy, but there is a risk of over-supply.

We may also not see the feared proliferation of money shops as – following some shocking PR issues and increased support for credit unions – this may be an industry that will wither and die.

One issue that some view as likely to come into play in some  areas of our town centres, is  something you’ll probably all have read about –  a potential change in the planning regulations to allow the conversion of small (less than 150 metres square) shop premises into residential or office accommodation.  It is, so I understand, intended that Councils would retain powers to reject such applications on the basis of a threat to the local economy.  There has already been an outcry about the potential effect on high streets which may result in some watering-down of this plan and in any event some “secondary” – but more likely “tertiary” – premises may become converted it’s my feeling that “primary” areas in our high streets would be likely to escape this fate. My sense also is that the landlord of a “prime” high street building would view conversion to residential use as very much a last resort.

So, all in all, and IF the necessary reforms are dealt with in a way that will genuinely help the “independents” – and the economy defies my slightly pessimistic view of its prospects – the high street in around 2020 will still be very recognisable to the 2013 shopper – you never know,  it may even be “buzzier”!!

Jonny Browne

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About Jonathan Browne (13 Articles)
Libertarian, gourmand, Villa fan, guitar player, bar stool philosopher and mensch; I also know a bit about about buildings and businesses; and businesses in buildings