The future of retail; we have to address scale and separation

The backside of retail [1960-70s Southend-on-Sea and 2017 Oxford]

At a time when we are all thinking about the future of retail and the Government is looking to expand permitted development rights (MHCLG Planning Reform Consultation) to ‘support new businesses and encourage further diversity’, including upwards ‘air space’ extensions, it is worth considering exactly what we are dealing with.

As retail losses continue to dominate news reports the decline of our high streets continues to wreak havoc to the centres of our towns, to thousands of dedicated retailers and the community of shop assistants and shoppers alike. But Grimsey and Timpson have reported and there does seems to be an underlying determination that we must and will recover our high streets, albeit with new adapted uses and a considerably reduced array of ‘bricks and mortar’ retail. However, there appears to be little distinction being made between the types of high street that are afflicted. It is sensibly reported that no one remedy will work for all and individual, contextual solutions need to be worked out. But given that high streets include everything from large, brightly lit, chain store dominated, city centres to modest, independent, locally shopped market towns, different trading forces are at work and a different scale applies. Add in the heritage values often surviving in smaller towns and the differences can be acute.

It is not difficult to see that small town high streets or sub-high streets of larger towns, supported by local resident populations, might be able to adapt retail with local convenience and desirable businesses, evolving a successful future, even if this takes some time. But where the huge commercial forces of the last 60 years have re-shaped larger town centres with large stores replacing small shops, things are different. These stores often have vast, blank backsides, separated from the local residential settlement by oppressive and inhuman service roads. Here the outlook is quite different. And these forces, the commercial imperative, have been ever present over this time, moulding the high streets we see today. In Southend-on-Sea, like many towns, the beautiful Edwardian townscape started to change post war and today the High Street is interrupted along its length by now outmoded forms, the brutalist shopping centre, the large framed, large floored stores and the post-modern mall, deliberately turning retail in on itself, away from the townscape. The service road dominates, with its cold, bleak appearance, efficient for the 40 feet long delivery lorries and buses but repellant to pedestrians. In this domination there’s very little space to be shared with residents, let alone good quality space with amenity. There is just no relationship between town centre and the surrounding townscape.

60 years or so does not get undone swiftly and therefore nothing short of major planning and development intervention here is going to bring adaptive change. We can expect this to take many years.

Yet right up to late 2017 Oxford was repeating the same mistake with its new shopping centre at Westgate, the latest in long line of retail dominated town centre development. The bright, shiny new-build with attractive rooftop restaurants and alternative demographic might give the appearance of success but the very same planning mistakes have continued. Step out of the protective retail bubble and you are faced with windy city, the inhuman transport zone, bearing absolutely no relation to the rest of the city. At night, everything closes and the local people are dispossessed. Security takes over.

In some ways large scale retail has separated or isolated us from our towns. If we are to find a successful new future we have to adapt our town centres and relate them to our lives and to the wider town and city fabric has made up our lives. We have to look to wider heritage perspective.