Rachel Bullock: high hopes for our high streets

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I know, the title here is more than a little optimistic, but please just hear me out.

In truth, my heart sank a little when asked to do a special report on our high streets during lockdown. I remember walking down Stockton High street as a child with my parents - bustling market stalls, a packed Woolworths, pavements teeming with shoppers etc. It’s a memory long since gone, replaced with shuttered doors and once proud buildings that have slipped into terrible decline. The prospect of reporting on this awful decline was not a happy one.

So I decided to dig a little deeper. We were already well aware of the struggle retailers have been facing for years, a struggle accelerated and deepened by the pandemic. I headed to Bishop Auckland. Like many towns, it’s changing direction. It wants to develop a town centre ‘experience’, rather than be a simple shopping destination. Work’s underway, the glorious Auckland castle for example, or Kynren, both treats to draw people in. The more I delved, I discovered that a blueprint to develop exactly this kind of town centre has been in place for years. It’s already been adopted in several European cities, where new laws have banned absentee landlords, big food chains are refused planning permission. All aimed to give independents a real chance to thrive.

Credit: ITV Tyne Tees

It’s widely agreed that this is the way forward here in the UK. And after high street shops suffered the worst year on record (figures from the British Retail Consortium) isn’t it time we acted now? Ideas include putting doctors surgeries onto high streets or holding public meetings in shop empty units – basically anything to get people into town. Once there, they wander into shops. Internet shopping and retail parks are going nowhere. But perhaps, if we move now, neither are our high streets; redesigned into a place we all need, not just want, to visit.

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