Can waterfront developments and cultural hubs reverse Britain's high street decline?

Councils are taking ambitious steps to revive declining town centres after more than 17,000 retail outlets closed in 2022

More than 17,000 shops shut last year and about 14 per cent of high street premises are empty. Getty Images
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After suffering decades of falling trade and bruising Covid lockdowns, 60-year-old butcher Les Meynell this year became something of poster boy for businesses hit by the decline of the UK's shopping heartland, the town centre.

Meynell, whose family have run their business – one of the North-East’s oldest – for around 100 years, took the closure of Stockton-on-Tees' Castlegate shopping centre as a cue to contemplate retirement. “I’m 60 and after Covid my wife and I decided that we would call it a day,” he said.

But local officials had other plans, suggesting the business moved across the road to the once-desolate Stockton High Street. “The council badly wanted us to keep going and relocate to the high street,” Mr Meynell said. “With their help we decided to give it one more go. I never thought I was going to see the high street buzzing again – until now.”

Boarded up and empty shops are in danger of becoming the predominant experience on UK high streets. More than 17,000 shops shut last year – an average of 47 a day – as consumers continued to buy online after the pandemic. The latest figures show that about 14 per cent of high street premises are empty.

In 2019, Stockton town centre had a vacancy rate of 22 per cent, twice the national average. After bulldozing the 50-year-old shopping centre this has decreased to 10.2 per cent, almost 4 per cent below the national average, and – the city's leaders hope – the starting point of its regeneration.

Ambitious plans have been published for a Stockton marina with a redeveloped River Tees riverfront aimed at becoming the town's commercial and social heart. The development will be three times the size of Trafalgar Square when it is completed late next year.

“Stockton Waterfront is going to be a real game changer and you’ll be able to look across the High Street to a bold, new urban park,” Nigel Cooke, the local councillor overseeing the plans, told The National.

“We want to create a high street where shopping can still play a part to a successful town centre but also where living, working and playing become essential elements, combined with the town’s fantastic events programme.”

Mr Meynell is already grateful he did not close the butcher's shop his grandfather started, but moved instead. “It is actually working. It was a good move and it is busy. We have got our regulars and now have new customers coming in too,” he said.

“I’m over the moon I have done it rather than just sit back. It has been worth giving it another shot, but I’m realistic that it is never ever going to be like it was 20 years ago.”

North East exodus

Northern parts of England have been the hardest hit by the decline, with nearly a fifth of shops in the North East standing empty compared to one in 10 in the South.

Helen Dickinson, Chief Executive of the British Retail Consortium, said the UK government needs to look at the cost of business rates to help firms.

“The past five years saw Britain lose 6,000 retail outlets, with crippling business rates and the impact of the Covid lockdowns a key part of decisions to close stores and think twice about new openings,” she said.

“The North and Midlands continue to see the highest amount of empty storefronts. London’s vacancy rate remains the lowest, improving over the last quarter thanks to the opening of new flagship stores, more office workers, and tourists visiting the capital.

Retail expert Dr Julian Dobson told The National much of the damage to town centres has come from out-of-town malls, but this does not mean towns cannot be reinvented as lifestyle venues.

“With out-of-town retailing, the damage has been done,” he said. “You can trace it back to the 1980s move from in-town to out-of-town stores and purpose-built shopping centres.

“More recently the last 20 years has seen the rise of the internet with online shopping accounting for a quarter of retail sales,” said Dr Dobson, of the Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research at Sheffield Hallam University.

“Over the last 30 years we have seen major stores brought out by private equity companies, and then laden with debt, which are not accountable to the local community and will come and go depending on where the wealth is.”

New ways

In a bid to buck the trend, cities and towns have been seeking innovative ways to pump life back into their tired shopping streets.

Stockton’s efforts have been hailed as a model for other areas, said Mr Cooke, who believes the urban park and waterfront area will make footfall king once more.

“Stockton town centre is successful and vibrant with impressive public spaces on a high street with a rich heritage and a niche retail offer,” he said.

“We want to continue to build on the asset of the River Tees and provide a high-quality setting for a modern town centre with a distinct sense of place.”

Ojay McDonald, the chief executive of the Association of Town and City Management, said: “All eyes are on Stockton at the moment.”

“It is one area which has really looked at how to be dynamic in terms of place-shaping and really bring people together on a journey,” he told The Northern Agenda podcast.

Experiences and technology-driven business models are filling up tarnished shopping venues including in London's Oxford Street, where TikTok recently opened its first pop-up.

The demise of high street stores has also opened new doors for art ventures, with pop-up cultural attractions opening in empty premises, and museums helping to bring in people.

In Wakefield, West Yorkshire, a museum is being created in a large former fashion store in its main precinct.

With almost a quarter of its shops shut, the city has been using pop-up art installations to reinvent itself. It is even welcoming visitors with a recorded voice message from former footballer and pundit Chris Kamara.

Michael Graham, a Wakefield councillor, explains how a £100 million redevelopment of his city's centre can make it a more attractive destination.

“More people are shopping online, so it’s more important than ever for our city centre to be a great retail and leisure destination,” he said. “We are meeting this challenge with our long-term vision.

“At the heart of this is our new outdoor sculpture trail with artwork from leading British artists. It has contributed to Wakefield being hailed as the UK’s ‘unofficial city of sculpture’.

“A former department store is being converted into a new museum and library that will tell the history of the city and work is under way to create state-of-the-art office space and a new city centre hotel on the site of a former train station.

“We recently opened the first phase of a creative hub, the largest centre of its kind outside of London, with 25 music and creative studios. This creative hub will firmly put Wakefield on the map.”

Professor Nigel Morgan, Professor of Social Sustainability at the University of Surrey, says high streets do have a future.

“The pandemic, cost of living crisis, soaring energy bills and war in Ukraine have hit UK towns and cities hard,” he said. “It has been brutal for the British hospitality and retail sectors. Almost 50 stores a day closed in 2022 and 15,000 more will close this year. In some cities, one in three commercial premises are empty.

“People don’t go into towns just to shop but to meet people, so we need places where we can relax and hang out. If our high streets are to truly see a renaissance, then we need to create an ecosystem which nurtures social and cultural life, and space for people to thrive.”

UK's 55 'overlooked' towns

Earlier this month the UK government announced it was giving 55 “overlooked” towns a £20 million injection of funding over a 10-year period.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the new long-term vision for towns was about putting “funding in the hands of local people” to improve their communities.

“Towns are the place most of us call home and where most of us go to work,” he said. “But politicians have always taken towns for granted and focused on cities.”

Tina McKenzie, of the Federation of Small Businesses, is campaigning for a change to local taxation to encourage regrowth.

“High streets are complex ecosystems and play a vital role in how people relate to where they live, with local businesses making important contributions to local economies and communities,” she told The National.

“The small firms based on high streets need a stable and safe environment in which they can flourish.”

With inflation hitting double digits earlier this year and the UK's price growth the highest in the G7, the cost of living is punish for most people.

Lucy Stainton, Commercial Director at the Local Data Company, said empty units have reached critical levels and businesses have never had it so tough.

“Current challenges to businesses have been compounded by tightening discretionary spend and a dip in confidence among consumers,” she said.

“The high street has seen some of the most notable impacts, with rising rents and increased competition putting pressure on small and independent businesses, who may struggle to meet high operating costs.”

However, even the beneficiaries of regeneration schemes remain to be convinced that the battle to save a way of life in the UK can be won in the long term.

“Stockton is trying its hardest to keep businesses and the town centre is full,” said Mr Meynell, the butcher.

“The pictures of the waterfront development look beautiful but whether they can create that is another matter. The shops are not there so we don’t know if it will benefit us.

“I believe we will now survive here for another five years without a doubt – even if the lovely riverside is a flop.”

Updated: October 20, 2023, 6:00 PM