The demise of the high street: Britain’s new de-industrialisation

Buchanan Street, Glasgow: What future for streets like this after Covid? Picture: Artur Kraft/Unsplash

The changes in the retail character of our town and city centres may be as sweeping and significant in their way as the effects of de-industrialisation in the 1970s and 1980s, and similarly irreversible. 

If proof were needed that the shopping-centred high street of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is disappearing, the £517m pre-tax loss posted by retailer John Lewis on 11 March should have convinced the doubters. Within two weeks this was followed by the announcement that Sheffield’s John Lewis store, in a prime site opposite City Hall, would not reopen, along with seven other stores across the UK. 

The emotional response to the closure of a store that had been part of Sheffield’s history since its formation by Cole Brothers in 1847 was understandable. Within six days more than 20,000 people had signed a petition for the store to stay open. 

It might seem curious that people who, collectively, do not spend enough in a shop to support its survival should nonetheless appear outraged and upset at its closure. But assuming that John Lewis’s affluent and educated clientele have not forgotten how business works, perhaps something else is happening here. The petition can be seen as an expression of local place attachment, a sense of grief at a sudden loss that is being replicated elsewhere as familiar landmarks are boarded up.

In the last three years, nearly 450,000 retail jobs have gone across the UK. While many were the consequence of the extraordinary circumstances of Covid-19, this is a long-term trend (as the table shows). Even before the lockdown of March 2020, online shopping accounted for one fifth of retail spending; by January 2021 it was 36.3%.

As for the department store, that ‘emblem of nineteenth-century modernity’ as Rachel Bowlby puts it, anyone who noticed the successive failures of BHS, House of Fraser and Debenhams could see the writing on the wall. 

YearTotal jobs lostTotal store closures
2018117,42514,583
2019143,12816,073
2020 (including lockdowns)182,58416,045
2021 (two months to 28 Feb – not including John Lewis)19,598928
Retail shift: job losses and store closures since 2018 (source: Centre for Retail Research)

These job losses will affect every sizeable community in the UK. In Britain’s coalfields, 250,000 jobs were lost since the start of the 1980s. Six years ago in How to Save Our Town Centres, I wrote that ‘losing our town centres will be like losing the coal industry, but the process will be more protracted and the damage more widespread’. Since then, little has been done to prepare for the coming change. 

That shift, like all industrial and social change, is complex. Internet shopping is the biggest, but not the only, factor. Another will be altered patterns of work. A recent McKinsey analysis suggested that 48% of the UK workforce could work remotely at least one day a week.

But the shift is also connected to a dysfunctional property industry fixated on quick profits from land development and sale, making retail space unaffordable. It is linked, too, to the hollowing out of retail diversity through decades of poor planning. Another factor is automation, with self-checkouts increasingly replacing staff.

Some responses are obvious. The business minister Kwasi Karteng recently said that the future of the high street is residential. But this needs to involve a quality of housing that is streets ahead of the poky apartments created under the permitted development rights extended in the last decade – only 22% of which meet national space standards. There has also been much talk about bringing community uses back onto the high street. But there are only so many community facilities a town or city centre can support, and community organisations and public services are under pressure too. 

Events and play are another part of the change we need to see, creating sociable cities that bring people together. I was part of the team created by Sheffield City Council and the University of Sheffield to bid successfully for £15.8m from the government’s Future High Streets Fund to bring new life into Fargate, the city’s traditional shopping hub where there are now at least 13 empty units. We recognised that creating spaces for people had to be at the heart of our proposals – including new interior and outdoor events spaces, and extending elements of the award-winning Grey to Green scheme which combines attractive planting with flood prevention features.

New green spaces have been key to plans elsewhere. Stockton-on-Tees wants to demolish part of its high street and create a new public park. Nottingham Wildlife Trust has advanced ambitious proposals to replace the redundant Broadmarsh shopping centre with a new ecological park. 

So what of John Lewis? The Sheffield site itself is ideal for repurposing, with cafes spilling out onto Barkers Pool. Why not turn the car park into a rooftop park? As the urbanist Jane Jacobs famously observed, new ideas need old(ish) buildings. 

As for the wider policy solutions, responding to structural change takes time. It’s time to ditch the fixation with ‘shovel-ready’ projects and short-term pots of capital funding, and the top-down approach of competitive bidding. It’s time to build capacity within local government and its partners for serious place-making, and encourage a culture of experimentation and imagination that will animate our places through many permutations to become fit for the future. 

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