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W(h)ither the high street, or Let’s Not All Go Down The Strand

One hundred years ago, the beating heart of London was… The Strand.

Once the site of John of Gaunt’s palace, by the late 19th century the Strand had developed into the key London artery, linking the commercial heart of the City, via the press enclave of Fleet Street and the Law Courts, to the West End, clubland and Whitehall.  The Strand was the heart of theatreland and entertainment, was referenced in songs (“Let’s all go down the Strand”), and gave its name to the magazine that published Sherlock Holmes.  The Strand was shorthand for all that was exciting about London; it was where Kipling’s empire builders yearned to return to.  The Strand was the face of the first world city.

Today, the palaces and many of the theatres are long gone; entertainment has moved towards Soho or the South Bank, and the Strand – notwithstanding the Savoy – has become little more than the dull location for interminable traffic congestion.  These days, you need a good reason, and a high bordeom threshold, to go down the Strand.

The Strand’s decline wasn’t planned – indeed, the development of Covent Garden as a retail and tourist hub might have reinvigorated it, but this was not to be, and it now just links places of interest rather than being interesting in itself.  Various crises of confidence in streets like these – which may house businesses, hotels, residents or students – will result in remodelling (heritage lamp posts) and rebranding – but streets and neighbourhoods are perversely good at evolving the way people want them to, rather than following a planner’s brief to reignite lost glories.

Of course, it doesn’t help when you start off with this:

Then replace it with this:

Before deciding, what the hell, let’s really make this place dismal:

Which has what to do with the withering high street?  There are few retail voids in the Strand – its location, and densely packed working population, will see to that.  But much of the good stuff that was there once has closed down, been knocked down or moved elsewhere, and you’re left with offices, traffic, and a so-what street.

The Strand, however, will survive and thrive in its current, dull incarnation.  Britain’s  second-string high streets and shopping centres have a tougher road ahead, though.  (Hello Camberley.) 

We’ve all seen the articles and TV packages, throwing together 500 words on the death of the high street, strolling through some damaged locale like Dunstable with pictures of boarded-up shops, vox-pops confirming there’s nothing on the high street for us local people now, and the necessary identification of villains – landlords (greedy), planners (fools), tenants (clonetown) and business types (it’s just estate agents and coffee shops). 

What really drives the decline of a high street, however, is that the public silently shows its wishes through its actions and – unless poverty presents no alternative – they clear off to shop and socialise elsewhere. 

Over the past few decades, the high street has been tested and found wanting.  Customers wanted to shop at supermarkets, or at retail parks, or in big malls in major cities or on motorway interchanges, or at specialist locations where artists, artisans or fashionistas gather.  Whether their motive is driven by convenience, or value, or the desire for a more interesting lifestyle, customers go to the location that best meets their needs.  Of course, they will mourn their high street, but – short of having a Merry Hill plonked on their doorstep – it was their withdrawal of patronage that caused all the butchers, bakers, and fishmongers to close down.  

The media and the planners tend to look backwards, for understandable reasons.  They ask: “How can we restore vibrancy to our high street?” – ie how can we return it to what it was.  Instead, the real question is: “What is the role, the purpose of this street in the 21st century?”

Now, the impact that all those retail parks and gigamarts had is being cast into sharp relief by the growth of online shopping.  A year ago, PayPal was estimating that 10% of all retail spending would be online by 2012.  This is rational enough, but the question no one knows the answer to is: What proportion of retail spending will ultimately be online?  20%?  50%?  And how will that spend split up in terms of product categories (food, furniture, fashion etc), and transaction types – convenience, impulse, leisure, planned spend etc? 

Nobody knows the answer to this.There are numerous high streets within a five mile radius of where I live in south-west London.  Some are very chi-chi and successful – all boutiques, cafes and hair salons; some are dead men walking – charity shops, cheap food outlets and voids.  The chi-chi streets can combine leisure and convenience, with their prosperous clientele prepared to pay a premium for a good experience.  Whereas the damaged streets are likely just to get worse, as more basic transactions shift from physical stores to online space.

The candlestick makers aren’t going to return – nor are the TV repair shops, the record shops or the formal gents outfitters.  Do secondary locations need high streets any more?  Would a series of parades, enabling local shopping and allowing more travel on foot, be more appropriate?  Should local shops be allowed greater savings on taxation and business rates, in order to promote communities and improve quality of life? 

These are big and difficult questions, but the only certainty is that consumers will  continue to seek out the retail option that works best for them, and that they will live with the consequences of their actions.  High streets will have to specialise in the goods and services that their local clientele want, to a hitherto unanticipated degree.   Like the Strand, high streets will change and change again, with only one certainty: that they will never again be what they were before.

Pictures: “fitz44” on skyscrapercity.com

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