THE BLOG

If Town Centres Are Going to Have a Future They Can't Rely on Retail

25/06/2013 16:14 BST | Updated 25/08/2013 10:12 BST

Slowly but surely the facts are beginning to percolate through a bed of misty-eyed sentiment and nostalgia. The high street is not going back to a credit-fuelled consumer boom of the early noughties and the dying model that traditionalists continue to champion remains in a critical condition. Put simply, the tide of change rolling through the high street is only going to get bigger.

Just look at the structural changes happening before our eyes. Applications for out of town retail developments are surging ahead of town centre developments, online shopping is booming and Amazon remains the most visited website for mobile retailers. On top of which, out of town mall culture continues to displace shoppers from traditional high street settings and a Google Glass revolution is gathering momentum.

Some of the early apps for Google Glass give a clear indication of how it's likely to impact on shopping. One app, for example, lets wearers search for and buy items that match stuff they already own. You can buy a host of colour co-ordinated kitchen equipment just by staring at your shelves.

The disruptive effects of these changes are obvious. Retail will continue to migrate online and to out of town mega malls. Trying to solve the problem of record numbers of empty shops with retail solutions is futile.

To some this may sound a gloomy prognosis, but there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about our high streets. As the old way of doing things becomes redundant there's the opportunity to build a post-retail landscape in town centres that embraces the needs of local communities above commerce. Retail will always have a role to play on the high street but if we're going to bring back the buzz to tired shopping areas and give people a reason to go there, we need a different, community-led model.

Since I announced my plan to conduct an alternative review of the high street, many people have asked me what the high streets of the future might look like. For some, it's hard to imagine going to the high street for anything other than shopping. But let's try. Because soon we'll have no choice.

First of all high streets will have to become meeting places once more, a locus of community power where education, leisure, health and housing meet local needs. Let's convert empty shops into affordable homes, transform them into education hubs where literacy initiatives compete with new technologies and learning labs.

Where row after row of boarded up shops now stand let's create leisure quarters so gyms, skateparks and velodromes coexist with dance studios, wellbeing centres and midnight football leagues. Streets where tumbleweed breezily blows through now could just as readily be converted to health zones bringing dentistry, physios, dieticians, chiropractors, counsellors and different therapies together in one cluster.

Instead of ubiquitous payday loans, pound shops and pawnbrokers, we could start planning fresh food zones, large-scale epic crowd games, play zones, town centre allotments and continuous street theatre. All of this is achievable; it merely scratches the surface of what's possible. But it'll require an acceptance that the current model is bust, a willingness to plan and Government support to help nurture a new model.

And once we accept that shopping is no longer the high street's raison d'etre then we can start to give it new meaning. By becoming more inclusive, high streets can act as a new frontline to tackle loneliness and build strong communities for the elderly. In the next few years there will be a million more over 65s and when Age UK surveys show that over half of older people see the television as their main form of company then Houston we have a problem.

There are more than 40,000 empty shops in the UK and this represents a tragic waste of potential. I'm not the only one distressed by this either. In the last week I've been inundated by scores of incredibly talented people getting in touch wanting to contribute to our review. There is a restless generation of people out there clearly unhappy with the status quo. They want and deserve much more from their high streets.

So let's ditch the sentimental focus on shopping and consumption and start planning for a future that works for all.

Over the next 10-weeks Bill Grimsey will be putting together an alternative view of the high street. If you would like to share your views, please email him at highstreetreview@gmail.com