Preventing the Death of UK High Streets

Preston Leads the Way

Preventing the Death of UK High Streets

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The internet has given us many things: unlimited information, ever-expanding interconnection, myriad means of procrastination - in some places it’s even helped birth democracy. But as one hand giveth, the other, as is often the case, taketh away. And in the UK, it looks like the gift of online shopping may come at the expense of our high streets - and the thousands of livelihoods they maintain.

But we knew this. Consumers are aware of the tradeoff they make buying books on Amazon instead of at the bookshop they walk past on their commute. And shopkeepers, obviously, don’t need telling - they’ve been struggling against internet forces, and before that out-of-town superstores, for years. Now, though, in this COVID-defined moment, lingering hope for a reprieve may well have been dashed, as, in accordance with lockdown and social distancing, even the most committed high street consumers have been kept away - and it’s unclear in what numbers they’ll return.

Preventing the Death of UK High StreetsSoon, 40% of non-food sales are predicted to take place online, up from 20% in February, and last month John Lewis and Boots announced a slew of store closures, with retail expert Bill Grimsey warning it’s ‘just the start’. In the coming year, he expects many retailers to join the likes of Toys “R” Us, Claire’s, Debenhams, and Oasis in administration - taking countless jobs with them. And it’s not just retail. Over a third of UK bank branches have shut since 2015, with numbers now increasing, and lockdown has brought the hospitality sector to its knees. 

The stakes are high

This sense of loss is seismic. The character of many towns emanates outwards from the high street, which operates as a bustling hub of exchange, not just economic, but social and cultural. Particularly in smaller towns, for those more rural and isolated, its demise is a devastating, unanchoring experience - jobs are lost never to be replaced, spots where friends used to meet disappear, and optimism fades.

It’s a feeling captured visually by the bleak-looking thoroughfares of boarded up fronts that are now a familiar sight in many town centres, the only life coming from corporately owned gambling, payday-loan, or fast-food shops. On the outskirts of these towns it’s not uncommon to find distribution warehouses, often the new centre of regional employment, where workers endure insecure work, with bad conditions and low pay.

The Preston Model and a little bit of hope

But there is hope. What’s happening is the result of adherence to a neoliberal economic model, greatly exacerbated by COVID. Once the virus is contained, reconstruction will offer an opportunity to depart this orthodoxy. With the right strategy, using what Democracy Collaborative calls community wealth models, local economies could yet be revived, and highstreets resurrected. Work to that end, though, must begin now.

Here the ‘Preston Model’ provides an illustrative case study of work underway, and an example of an innovative approach to community wealth building, which could be scaled up. The model itself is underpinned by an effort to embed capital in the local community, and relies on combining the economic weight of ‘anchor institutions’, those immovable institutions permanent in the community, like schools, universities, hospitals, etc.. Together, these institutions procure contracts with local businesses with certain conditions attached. (Contracts are only entered with unionised businesses, cooperatives, and companies that operate in the local area and pay a living wage.) This could take the form of a catering contract in a hospital open only to worker-owned enterprises based within 10 miles. It works to ensure that capital, previously extracted by big corporations and leaked outside of the local economy, instead stays within it, boosting local employment and future investment.

In Preston, the results have been immediate. Research from The National Organisation for Local Economies (CLES) found that anchor institution spending in the Preston economy increased from £38m to £111m in just three years, improved almost all economic measures, including GDP and productivity, and resulted in Preston being named Britain’s most improved city in 2018. 

Incentivising worker-owned businesses, as the model does, is a worthy goal, but without access to credit the possibility of expansion is limited. This is why the establishment of regional investment banks are essential to the success of community wealth building. Through targeted lending - prioritising sustainably run cooperatives and unionised businesses - these banks finance the growth of a sector, which commercial banks, put off by its small scale, would have little interest in. Local authority pension funds can also be encouraged to redirect investment from global markets to local schemes for additional means of financial support.

Outside of the Preston Model, reviving reforms also need to be made in public services, particularly transport. For a high street to flourish, or at the very least function, it needs to be accessible. Yet in huge swathes of the UK, where cuts have meant the withdrawal of local bus routes and the rising price of tickets, access has been increasingly denied. Reinstating and expanding public travel links, while extending initiatives like the freedom pass, which enables over-60s to travel for free, would be a big step forward.

Establishing rent caps to reign in unscrupulous landlords, appropriating derelict or unused properties into community trusts, and reforming business rates should also be part of any broader project to reanimate the high street. Easily implemented, they’re all eminently commonsensical. And when some retail goes, as it will, communities should consider what they want in its place - cafes, hairdressers, centres for learning and care. Change should be guided by society’s needs, not the market’s.

Taking control

Looking ahead, we should recognise that it’s impossible to completely insulate local markets from globalisation, COVID remains at large, and Amazon, evidently, is not going anywhere. But instead of continuing with the market at the wheel, communities must take control. We need conditions in which local development is encouraged, where jobs are locally and sustainably made, not lost - the Preston Model has proven it’s feasible, even on a shoestring. Failing to act is to choose a high street of pawnbrokers and gambling shops, of insecure, low-wage work, that degrades the environment. Is it too much to ask for something more?