I was about to say I apologise for writing yet again about the future of high streets but, actually, it’s too important a topic to apologise about. I’ve just read an article in today’s Daily Telegraph by Bill Grimsey, a well respected ‘veteran retailer’, saying that we’ve already decided traditional retail high streets are dead or dying. We’ve already chosen not to use them but rather shop in malls or on the internet. His view is ‘If we want a high street, we have to use it. And we’ve made that choice already. Increasingly we don’t use it’.
The arguments and counter arguments about our high streets will continue to rage for a while yet. Mary Portas takes the view they can be revived and others, such as Bill Grimsey, feel it’s already too late. Why waste time and money trying to fix something that’s shattered beyond repair? Mr Grimsey makes a very interesting argument about the medium term impact of mobile devices doing away with the need for cashiers and checkouts whilst virtual shopping will do away with the need for shops to hold stock of clothes. Instead shops could become very different venues where you choose your clothes off a screen and then get delivered to your home.
From shop to a hotel
I’m not sure I see it quite the same way or quite so fast. I can remember being involved in the BBC Computer Literacy project in the early 1980s when Sinclair and Acorn, amongst others, battled it out to show us the brave new world of microcomputers. Yes, very interesting many of us thought but what do exactly can we do with these high-tech boxes.? Of course they were right, but it didn’t happen as quickly as they thought or wished. I suspect Mr Grimsey is largely right but how fast will these changes occur?
As for solutions, he makes two very interesting points which are very timely given the current efforts being made to regerate the West Ealing high street through the High Street Innovation Fund and the riot recovery fund. He asks the question that if it’s not retail, what could our high streets look like and what sort of services could be there? He has two interesting thoughts about the future. Firstly, he argues that ‘If we really want to revive our high streets, we have to recognise that any successful high street has to be rooted in the local economy that is making things, growing things and pulling them out of the local ground’. He then goes on to say ‘The high street will no longer be a place of commerce with tills ringing. It has to be a place for the whole community. It could become the frontline to tackle a host of social problems. Take older people and loneliness. The high street is a natural gathering place and we need to redesign it to meet the needs of our changing society’.
From shop to arts project
This isn’t just an interesting theoretical discussion. This is about the very survival of the main artery of our local community. Lose the high street and towns, suburbs and villages die. In West Ealing we already have, or may soon have, some very interesting developments along our high street – or very near to it – many arising out of the Council’s high street fund. We have a new 60-bedroom hotel being built to replace a tired £1 shop. The OPENShop on Drayton Green Road is the next high street version of the OPEN Ealing arts project. You can drop in and watch artists at work as part of their Artists Zoo project this month. I’m part of a group working on a feasibility study in to a possible coworking space or hub on the high street. The hub could offer a range of services and spaces to help people start and grow their businesses. Before long there should be a pop-up shop on the high street which will offer the space to those with the best ideas, retail or otherwise, to bring more people in to West Ealing.
West Ealing is already grappling with the questions of what sort of high street do we want. We are exploring exactly the territory Mr Grimsley describes. What the answer or answers will be about our and other high streets will have to wait a little while yet. And I’m still not convinced about the pace of technological change and its impact on the high street but I don’t doubt it will happen.