At the bottom of a triple-dip recession, how is the High Street faring? It’s been a tough time for high street traders even before the recession started, with competition from big stores, out of town retail parks and online shopping. Even when the retail sector was expanding, high streets were getting an increasing smaller share of the market compared with other outlets. When the credit crunch hit, high streets and town centres suffered more than their share of the pain. According to Grant Shapps, the Local Government Minister, ‘Our high streets have faced stiff competition from Internet shopping and out of town shopping centres leaving them underused, unloved and undervalued’.
So is it all doom and gloom and has Poole High Street become part of this depressing trend? Walking up and down the street many times over the last couple of years, I don’t really think so. Shops have closed, including some big names – Woolworth’s, Clinton Cards, – but others have opened. Yesterday I counted 17 unused premises out of 189 between the Quay and the George, about 9%. This is below the national average for town centre vacancies which is estimated by different data companies as being between 10.5 and 14.4%. Some of the new shops that have opened in the last 12 months or so are Celly’s hairdressers, Mr. Simms’ Olde Sweet Shoppe, True Ink, In Tide, Karma, Coffee No. 34 and Longs, the new greengrocer’s. Empty properties seem to have been kept in decent repair and several are about to reopen.
As part of the national initiative, Mary Portas has been recruited to put the heart back into high streets. She sees high streets as ‘destinations for socialising, culture, health, well-being, creativity and learning,’ and not just about selling goods. ‘The mix will include shops but could also include housing, offices, sport, schools or other social, commercial and cultural enterprises and meeting places’. In other words, the high street of the future could be strangely similar to that of the past. In the 19th and early 20th century, Poole High Street had a wide range of shops but it also had workshops, houses, two churches, a library, a theatre and cinema, cafes, inns, offices and several private schools. The idea of a more diverse high street in the future is exciting and would certainly make it very different sort of place from the out-of-town retail park.
How far away are we from this vision? High streets vary enormously but Poole’s has lots of things going for it. For a start it actually leads somewhere, connecting the Dolphin Centre with the Quay, or the shopping and transport hub with the tourist area. The fact that it is pedestrianised for most of its length makes it a comfortable and pleasant place to be and the street trees enhance the environment. The street market two days a week is an added attraction. The range of shops and other services is surprisingly wide and is very comparable to what was on offer 100 years ago (see blog post ‘1903 and 2012’). Could more activities be added? One thing that I’ve learnt when researching the history of the High Street is that it has constantly changed and adapted itself over the centuries, and has proved very resilient. I can’t see it fading away in the 21st century.
Do you have any ideas or predictions about the future of High Street?