District Matters

Finding new futures for high streets

March 2024

With the news that two more prominent retailers are closing shops in Stratford, we must again ask what can be done to protect and enhance high streets in towns across our District.

Ten years ago, in 2013, Bill Grimsey wrote the first of several reports warning that change was coming with the increased growth of on-line retailing, changing demographics, changes in tourism, rising costs and changes in operating models all contributing. He warned that towns that did not actively tackle this were sleepwalking to a poor legacy for future generations.

Since that time, there is clear evidence that financial pressures have intensified. The traditional anchor businesses of many town centres have closed outlets across the country. In some areas, investors have bought empty buildings with a view to redeveloping them. In some cases these buildings have remained empty for many years.

In 2019, a High Streets Task Force was set up as an independent research group with Government funding. See https://www.highstreetstaskforce.org.uk/ for more details. Several studies were produced giving guidance on ways to address declining High Streets.

A conclusion from one of their studies was that the role of the local authority as leader who can ‘re-orientate' the thinking of partner organisations towards better place making is underestimated. Even though Councils such as Stratford-on Avon-District Council have limited powers, they can convene and bring together partners, communities, businesses and landowners to work together to show vision and leadership. We can stimulate new thinking and challenge old behaviours as enablers of change to find ways to tackle the problem rather than simply letting town centres decline further.

In June 2021, an ambitious bid for Government funds to address the centre of Stratford-upon-Avon was put together by a partnership of the County Council and Stratford Town Council. Consultation was carried out in 2022. Unfortunately, the Government announced in January 2023 that this bid for funding was unsuccessful.

Despite this set back, now is the time to rethink the future strategy, not only for Stratford-upon-Avon, but also for all the high streets in the District. This strategy has to include changes to our transport infrastructure, including public transport and rail links.

The original Grimsey Review offered 31 recommendations in an alternative vision for the future of town centres. It sought to broaden the concept of the high street, identifying the need to embrace technology and reinvention as a community hub with a combination of goods and services. These recommendations were largely ignored. Eleven years later and the challenges facing town centres and high streets have intensified.

A key part of the District Council's new Council Plan is to work with all our partners to support a strong sustainable economy that looks after our high streets and small businesses. We need to build on the diversity and distinctiveness of our towns, but also support the communities, voluntary organisations and range of businesses that work so hard and contribute so much to our towns.

We need to explore how people identify with their high street/town centre and their aspirations for its future role. Local people have an important role to play in developing communities and their passion, knowledge and commitment should be captured and managed.

Contact: The Communications team

Last updated on 03/10/2022