There is still hope for bricks and mortar retail, says Farrells’ Peter Barbalov

In a similar although slightly different vein to the immortal words of Mark Twain, reports of the death of the high street in response to the covid-19 pandemic, have been rife in recent weeks and greatly exaggerated.

Much has changed in the two months since lockdown began. Across the UK we are seeing an incremental restarting of the economy with non-essential retail billed for reopening on 15 June.

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To better understand the full impact on high streets, Farrells recently joined forces with a number of senior figures from across the place making, economic and planning sectors. A broad range of views have been expressed on the problems that have befallen high streets and the ones that are yet to emerge. By finding common ground in our different approaches, we have been able to identify several key themes which, when looked at together, help paint a clearer picture of the challenges and opportunities the high street faces.

There cannot be a cookie cutter approach underpinning the high street’s recover

The first of these themes is the concept of hyperlocalism. Head of economics at WSP Jim Coleman gave his views on the theory: “It is clear that social and spatial distancing affects footfall but it is also clear that high streets with lots of independent retail are doing better. People are staying local as they can’t move around or commute. We’ve learnt to localise our social and economic experience.”

Central to this is the acknowledgement of each town centre and high street as being unique. In short, there cannot be a cookie cutter approach underpinning the high street’s recovery. Each location presents a set of different challenges and requirements, ranging from economic and social issues which cannot be dealt with uniformly. These individual circumstances might in certain cases require a bespoke recovery period in order to kick-start their revival. While globalisation has led to homogenisation in many high streets, it certainly is not the case in every location. Giving credibility to hyperlocalism is vital if we are to establish a feasible rescue plan for the UK high street.

Empathy and community were the second outcomes highlighted by Mark London’s International Placemaking Strategist Jenni Carbins. Put simply, community involvement must be at the very centre of the debate around the repurposing of the high street. Rather than a small coterie of opinions guiding the reestablishment of the high street, a powerful new partnership with business owners and local residents must be formed if the potential of the new high street is to be realised. The ‘new normal’ (post-covid-19) will be powered and driven by communities.

Thirdly, we looked at the delivery, funding and leadership. Shaun Andrews, co-lead of Nexus Planning’s London studio gave his insight into this area: “There is no shortage of skills and motivation out there and innovative partnerships will be key. When it comes to High Streets local authorities must take the lead but they need the tools and funding.

“This is on the government’s agenda and funding is being made available via for example the High Streets Task Force. Local authorities will need to look very carefully and as a priority at uses and boundaries, ensuring there is sufficient flexibility to evolve and adapt in the covid era.” A rebalancing can help rejuvenate high streets that were struggling before the pandemic to better support local communities.

The covid-19 outbreak, while having had a destructive impact on our economy, offers a new path and future for it as well. The pandemic has helped us take stock of what is really important and made us look harder at both the ways we work and how we live our lives. The challenges presented by covid-19 are daunting but despite this there is still hope for the UK high street. With creative thinking like the above, we can find a way to save the high street. Far from being dead, the high street will come back from this experience revitalised, ready to serve its essential part in the everyday fabric of British society.

Peter Barbalov is a partner at Farrells