There is much to be applauded in the Building Better, Building Beautiful report, which rightly identifies today’s challenges facing the high street.
However, it misses the mark on the important messages by distracting us with the beauty debate – a polarising term that is too closely identified with style. Really, that conversation should be how we define ‘placemaking’. The industry’s ongoing response to this term tends towards the characterisation and theming of place and buildings to reflect context and history. While this is an important facet of a design’s development, it can veer far too close to ‘stage setting’. We should surely be content with the notion of ‘place-enabling’ and creating a framework that allows communities to inhabit and evolve beyond what was originally conceived.
Returning to the demise of the high street, the report cites high business rates, changes to the way we shop and uncertain economic times. Our town centres have become more leisure and service orientated than ever before, yet are suffering heavily from brand fatigue. This comes from an oversaturation of ubiquitous national brands, which are finally seeming to be abandoned by shoppers in favour of innovative local and pop-up offers.
These new businesses, however, create financial uncertainty for developers as they can’t commit to long-term or stable contractual terms. This forces developers to develop ‘spec space’ that isn’t place or user specific or responsive to a need. We know that the best outcome comes from a product aimed at an end user, and unless we can find a way of engaging with these riskier businesses, we run the risk of repeating the same cycle from the last decade, albeit on a much more granular scale.
One of the report’s most contentious recommendations is to combine residential with ‘undesirable’ out-of-town retail. Homes on our towns’ peripheries, located away from local facilities and transport connections, are equally unappealing. We should be looking to bring homes back into the centre and reversing decades of flight, not the other way around. It can only be a good thing for front doors to become a key component of a town street’s ability to engage the public realm once again.
So, while I welcome the report for what it is trying to achieve, it needs to build on the conversation and not get lost in the ephemeral debate on beauty so we can bring forward real, implementable changes that will address the current challenges for the high street.
Craig Sheach is a partner at PRP