The Observer view on regenerating Britain’s high streets

The Observer view on regenerating Britain’s high streets

08/22/2021

Once, the leaders of British towns and cities found it hard to imagine a future for their centres that wasn’t retail and more retail. In Hastings, a shopping centre was built over a picturesque county cricket ground. In Hull, attractive docks were filled in. Developers and chain stores were wooed, often at the expense of independent businesses. Urban life was conceived as shopping and little else.

Now those same malls and precincts have become a liability. Covid has hastened a decline that was already evident, thanks largely to the rise of online shopping.

They are going the same way as the abandoned factories and warehouses of former industrial zones, with the difference that they threaten to desolate the historic hearts of the towns in which they are located. It’s been clear for a while now that different futures have to be imagined for these places.

All of which makes Stockton-on-Tees a heartening example. Here, the council has striven to bring uses into its centre that are not mere consumption: events, independent enterprise, performance, a refurbished art deco theatre. It is also planning to demolish the 1970s Castlegate shopping centre and replace it with a park, which will open up a connection between the town’s broad high street and its formerly neglected river.

Rather than seek a return on every available square foot, the idea is to encourage convivial and diverse public life, qualities that were always fundamental to town centres and that might be appreciated more than ever in the aftermath of Covid.

The old preoccupation with retail has not only lost its commercial rationale, but also entailed a limited idea of human existence: it implied that you could only be a fully engaged citizen when you were buying things.

The thinking behind the Stockton experiment is more generous. It deserves to succeed, both for its own sake and for the lead it can give to other high streets. Not that its model can be replicated exactly: every town centre being distinctive and different, with its own assets and challenges, will require different responses.

What they will all require is leadership from their local authorities. They will also, unavoidably, need funding. It will never be a commercial proposition to buy an old shopping centre, knock it down and replace it with a park that requires ongoing maintenance costs.

Such leadership, sadly, is made more difficult by the government’s big idea for renewing high streets, which is to deregulate planning so that shops can be converted piecemeal into residential units. Yet Stockton’s transformation, while led by the town’s Labour council, is supported by the government’s Future High Streets Fund and the Tory-led Tees Valley combined authority.

These issues can and should transcend party politics and deregulatory dogma. The alternative is a potentially endless degradation of town centres and with that losses in quality of life and a waste of human and physical resources. The decline of big retail, handled well, could make high streets into better places than they were before.

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