Tiffany Cloynes Gillian Duckworth 16 October 2018

The future of the high street

Since the decline of major retailers such as Woolworths in 2008 and then, more recently, BHS, there has been an ever-increasing number of high street retailers facing difficulties. This year alone has seen House of Fraser, Mothercare and Marks & Spencer announce plans to close stores alongside a number of well-established chains closing down altogether.

It has been estimated that since 2008, 11,000 high street outlets have gone under with at least 35,000 retail jobs lost or put at risk of redundancy this year alone.

So, what has caused the high street to suffer? How does it affect the local community? And what can be done by local authorities to support the increasingly fragile high street?

Reasons for the continuing decline of the high street include; the growth of online retailers, ever increasing business rates (a property-based tax affecting only those with physical stores), the introduction of out-of-town retail parks and increased costs of city centre parking. Changes in spending habits since the recession have also played a part, with people still cautious about overspending and using any spare cash on leisure activities and holidays as opposed to retail.

Thriving retail developments can play an important role in maintaining healthy and successful communities, so the decline of the high street and closure of many retailers continues to have an impact on local communities through the loss of jobs and opportunities for local people, and a loss of community cohesion. In many towns, once vibrant centres are now shadows of what they were, with many units empty and boarded up, causing investment to slow, and people to abandon the area.

Last month central Government announced the appointment of a panel of experts to diagnose issues currently affecting the health of our high streets and to advise on the best practical measures to help them thrive. The review will look at the current challenges and work out options to ensure our town centres remain vibrant.

A local authority might be able to assist in developing and shaping its high street in a variety of ways. The extent of their involvement will depend on the needs and requirements of their particular area and their appetite to intervene.

Ways in which a local authority could assist include:

• Considering applications for planning permission for retail development;
• Being a landowner of site(s), which could be developed for retail and possibly other uses to supplement the retail market;
• Distributing funding to third parties to assist with the development of the high street; and
• Acquisition of parts of the high street to enable the local authority to be actively involved in its management and future sustainability.

A local authority should take a strategic approach to city centre development and management to achieve an environment which is best suited to the current and future needs of its community. An area that was developed many years ago may have limited attraction to a community that does much of its shopping on-line but might be keen to have access to work opportunities and cultural and leisure facilities in a city centre.

The obligations imposed by the Well-being of Future (Generations) (Wales) Act 2015 makes it particularly necessary for Welsh public bodies to take account of the impact of their actions on future generations, and it would also be reasonable for English local authorities to do so.

Expanding the high street to more than just retail has been key in redefining some high streets to ensure they can continue to be sustainable. Increasing the number of restaurants, and leisure and cultural activities around retail has been found to help attract visitors and encourage them to stay in cities for longer. In addition, research has shown that in strong city centres, the dominance of office space provides greater footfall each day for retailers and leisure businesses while city centres dominated by shops struggle to provide enough daily footfall on their own.

Whatever the nature of the local authority’s involvement, there will be a number of legal considerations to bear in mind. Firstly, a local authority needs to ensure it takes reasonable decisions. This means it must consider all relevant matters, disregard irrelevant factors, observe procedural requirements, act for proper purposes and not act in bad faith. Disposals of land will be subject to the requirement for the local authority to obtain the best consideration reasonably obtainable (unless it falls within the general consent) together with any other specific requirements for particular types of land i.e. open space or assets of community value.

Public procurement and state aid rules will need to be considered if the local authority is considering entering into a contract with a third party for the provisions of services, goods or works.

Sheffield City Council has shown just how their continued input into their high street in developing the cultural and leisure community as well the retail has helped it to flourish. Sheffield was at the forefront of centre shopping development with the Meadowhall complex (at the time the second largest in the country and soon due to be expanded to the fourth largest).

The council also had plans with a developer for large scale retail development in its city centre but those were put on hold with the financial crisis in 2008, but the city council did not stand still, putting its focus into encouraging development of non-high street sectors, bringing disused and run-down industrial buildings back into use, particularly around the universities, and attracting diverse independent retailers.

It also rejuvenated its public spaces including creating the Golden Route from the rail station, the award-winning Grey to Green and Sheffield’s forthcoming Knowledge Gateway to encourage private development. Relocation of the city’s main market led to redevelopment of the Moor, a shopping area that had been in decline for a number of years, which is now also home to a cinema complex and restaurants.

Although the pause caused by market crash was not welcomed progress is now being made at pace with Sheffield City Council in a prime position through its Heart of the City Two development to provide the resilient mixed-use city centre that retail needs for the future.

Tiffany Cloynes is partner at Geldards and Gillian Duckworth is director of legal and governance at Sheffield City Council

This feature first appeared in Local Government News magazine. Register here for your free copy.

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