The relentless growth in online retail and punishing increases to business rates mean the average London high street is being slowly throttled into obsolescence.
However, some policy measures – both existing and in the new draft London Plan released in November – provide an olive branch to all of us who want to bring greater dynamism back to this fundamental part of urban life.
The possible responses understandably differ according to location. In central London, the Spatial Development Strategy for the central activities zone remains largely unchanged. There is a continued focus on promoting and enhancing the office, retail, entertainment and cultural focus of central London, while preventing too much residential conversion.
The most ambitious high-street proposal is the plan for a traffic-free area between Orchard Street and Oxford Circus in the West End. This showcases the type of placemaking strategy required to enhance the traditional retail experience and drive footfall. While there have been concerns raised regarding rerouted traffic and accessibility issues, the overall plan is a positive step.
Connecting retail and residential regeneration
London mayor Sadiq Khan recently stated that the city must work towards delivering more than 50,000 homes a year. Meanwhile, high streets are struggling, with retailers moving out and plenty of large units empty or not used to their full potential. Many boroughs have intelligently connected the two, earmarking high-street regeneration to help fulfil multiple needs – not only to deliver much-needed housing, but also provide purpose-built commercial spaces that meet the requirements of modern retailers.
In outer London areas without the luxury of mass tourism or an abundance of office workers, the need for a diverse mix of residential, retail and commercial product is best addressed through the wider development of mixed-use schemes.
The onus is therefore on developers to curate a differentiated product mix to help drive organic growth. Banking a large high-street chain on the ground floor is often seen as the easiest option, but we believe a better long-term solution is to deliver well-designed schemes that offer flexible spaces for independent retailers, shared offices and accommodation.
The ‘good growth’ principles at the heart of the draft London Plan, with greater emphasis on high-quality design, peer review and scrutiny in order to deliver high-density developments, seem to be the correct response in trying to create a successful high street that sits at the centre of a rich community.