A return to ‘localness’ – the key to revitalising the British High Street


Sam Neal, Associate Director of NSL’s Project Centre, says a continued preoccupation with the retail function risks jeopardising any attempt to re-energise and revitalise our High Streets.

It had its critics and the outcomes have been less than convincing, but the Portas Review did focus attention on the challenges and opportunities facing High Streets in towns right across the country. It’s now five years since the review findings were published and many would argue that very little has changed, with High Streets continuing to suffer from the inexorable rise in on-line shopping on the one hand and the pull of out-of-town retail parks on the other.

But it’s important to recognise that High Streets are much more than just a place for shopping. Despite her specialist retail experience Mary Portas acknowledged, “high streets can be lively, dynamic, exciting and social places that give a sense of belonging and trust to a community.” This is where our focus should be if there is to be any prospect of breathing new life into our High Streets and for our town centres to, once again, be popular and attractive places to go and great places for community interaction.

Any initiative to revitalise our High Streets should not just look at retail and commercial regeneration. Rather, the emphasis should be on a multi-faceted approach to reflect the multi-dimensional and complex composition of our urban hearts. That’s not all. Just as important is the need to resurrect the unique character and local personality that all too often and for far too long has been hidden from view.

For many years, our High Streets succumbed to the glamour, domination, consumer appeal and predictability of major retailers. The subtleties and nuances of the local area – and local retailers! – which provided a tangible and special connection for the local community, were simply overwhelmed by the power and presence of high profile national and international brands. Many of those brands have now moved to out of town locations leaving behind an environment that has lost the very identity and personality that previously provided the heartbeat for the community and surrounding areas. That is a situation that has to change if any effort to regenerate or revitalise such important and dynamic centres of social interactions is to prove effective.

Consequently, urban planning interventions must be holistic and address a multitude of elements and considerations far beyond the façade of commercial enterprise. For example, it’s not just a question of encouraging and putting on a series of special events to attract visitors and participants. It’s equally important to build capacity and capability within the community to enable local people to run future events themselves once the regeneration project has run its course. Even in a retail context similar disciplines should apply. The task does not stop with the installation of new shop fronts. Retailers and traders should be trained simultaneously in visual merchandising and business skills to help improve their commercial viability and to increase their potential for sustained success.

The introduction of art installations and the creation of new landmarks that are befitting a digitally engaged and progressive society also provide a great opportunity for meaningful community engagement as well as the adoption of co-design principles. Inspiring, thought-provoking and attractive visual statements not only provide local people with the opportunity to have a say in how their local town centre or High Street looks and feels, it also helps to cultivate community pride and buy-in to a regeneration scheme. More importantly, they help to stamp a mark that will redefine and reinforce the unique qualities, heritage and personality of the local area so that it no longer appears as just a bland and faceless clone of any other town centre.

Since the post-war regeneration of our towns and cities, the scope for carving out regeneration opportunities in the hearts of our urban communities has never been greater. We might not be talking about a blank canvas as was the case seventy years ago with so many heavily bomb-damaged areas in our major centres of population. But, rejuvenation of our High Streets and town centres is even more of a priority than it was when Mary Portas began her original investigation.

Re-modelling of traffic to create a space for activities, events and urban art. Re-directing pedestrian movements to create more interactivity and engagement within previously un-loved and emotionally ‘empty’ environments. And, working closely with developers to encourage them to go the extra mile to establish meaningful community engagement. Whatever approach is adopted, the priority must be to maximise buy-in to a scheme and to ensure that every element of a regeneration programme provides the benefits, services and environment that a local community needs and values. Only then will we have the qualities needed to reignite the passion, support and purpose that our High Streets so desperately need.

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For further information, please contact Luke Allen, Director of Communications, 07468 701361, or Luke.Allen@nsl.co.uk

Notes to Editors:

NSL is a leading UK company specialising in the delivery and management of frontline services in complex public sector and regulated environments. Our core services include business process management; enforcement; passenger and social transport; street management and technical design services. We currently have over 70 contracts with local, regional and central government, as well as with the airport and the private sector, and have delivered contracts for high-profile government agencies, such as The Royal Parks, DVLA, Transport for London and Transport Northern Ireland.