Our high streets need more than just shops says city expert as part of a Leeds campaign

Kate Hardcastle MBE on what our high streets need.
Kate Hardcastle MBE on what our high streets need.
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Kate Hardcastle MBE is a retail and commercial expert who presented the TV documentary End of the High Street.

THERE is significant need for action. It was 2011 when the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, instructed Mary Portas to conduct a review of the UK high streets.

Soon eight years will have passed, the problems still exist and many feel frustrated that simple changes that could have made a difference have not happened.

There are obvious wins, like free parking (limited time allocation, i.e. 30 minutes and no return in two hours); accessibility (a lot of our high streets offer challenges for those who would rely on them the most); cleanliness, safe and hygienic public toilets and a review of rates for business owners.

They were obvious too in 2011 – but very few changes have happened across the majority of towns and cities.

Dig deeper, and it seems part of the problem lies with who is actually responsible. When I interviewed Jake Berry MP, the High Street Minister, he highlighted local authorities and said they have the decision-making powers.

Yet local authorities fraught with budget constraints and an ever-increasing job-list don’t always seem to have the focus or indeed the ability to create an ambitious and yet realistic plan for place management.

BID teams (Business Improvement District) are created of well meaning, local stakeholders volunteering to make a difference. I believe working collaboratively is absolutely part of the solution, but often these teams lack an Outside-In approach – either replicating ideas from other places which maybe not relevant or suitable for their area or overlooking the most important people – shoppers and residents.

So what do we need?

Focus and realism. We need to accept that our high streets will face a natural reduction in retail space.

We don’t need to shop, we have to be enticed to ‘want’ to shop – and that means understanding the changing needs of today’s shopper, including hours of opening and much improved customer service.

We enjoy more social with our retail, and want a wide variety of food and beverage offers beyond bland national coffee shop chains.

We want to be able to run errands whilst we shop – so its natural that not only do we want a good mix of dentists, hairdressers, beauty salons but easily accessible medical centres, nurseries and public services too.

If more people live and work in the area, then more propensity that people will want shops and services close by too so housing development is a very real and sensible approach.

Human instinct is to feel safe and secure – we will use spaces that feel good, clean, tidy, safe and free from a monopoly of ‘chuggers’ and energy firms aggressively selling to you.

The better a place looks, the more we feel attracted to it – less graffiti, more green spaces – and it is human instinct to respect a space that looks cared for.

Consumers to shop there – it is a little hypocritical to complain about the disappearance of shops if you haven’t spent cash their in years. If you want traditional retail to survive, you need to support it.

I have dedicated eight years of free seminars and support to micro-businesses. I have built brilliant relationships with some fantastic entrepreneurs and we have a wealth of talent in our independent retail offer.

That said, most of them are incredibly honest about how challenging business is, and just how financially limiting it can be.

A lot of retail independents are not in business to make fortunes, and can often have years of just breaking even, if not suffering losses.

They have a belief that their offer is important to their community and providing a service as well as adding to the value of a place.

If they offer good value for money, put customers to the heart of their business and are passionate experts in what they do, that is exactly the type of store I wish to buy from and support.

I would ensure a mechanic completed my car MOT, and a doctor cared for my family’s health needs. I think it is time that we started to ensure some true experts were part of this evolution of the high street, and put the right plans in place. Before it really is too late.