21/07/2013 15:42 BST | Updated 20/09/2013 06:12 BST

The High Street Has Reached Tipping Point - There's No Going Back


Last week a largely unnoticed event showed we've now reached a tipping point. As the government quietly released a progress update on the Portas Pilots, ministers acknowledged, no doubt through gritted teeth, that the pilots had been a "valuable testing ground" but were never meant to solve the problem of struggling high streets.

Nobody needed telling this, it's been blindingly obvious for months. Expecting the Portas Pilots to push back the tide of inevitable structural change is a bit like throwing a water bomb at the great fire of London. But finally this has started to dawn on ministers.

The fact that our high streets can no longer rely on an outdated retail model to guarantee their survival is undisputed. It's reckless and irresponsible to simply place our faith in experiments in the margins. If our high streets are to find a vibrant, sustainable future they'll need a complete solution that's based around community needs.

A few weeks previously, Martin Blackwell, chief executive of the Association of Town Centre Management, had told MPs before a select committee that his organisation had spent the last 20-years focusing on shopping as the important thing for the high streets. They had, he conceded, lost sight of the fact that historically high streets had much broader uses.

Blackwell's admission perfectly illustrates the myopia that's held our high streets back for too long. The evangelical fervor of believers rallying around the cheap-credit-consumer-boom-flame has blinded them to huge structural changes and a big shift in consumer behavior. We're not going back to 2006, we need to start preparing for the future.

There are still some that continue to waste their energies fighting a massive shift in consumer behavior. The pointless 'town centre first' policy is one example. Nanny statist attempts to dictate to people where they shop have no place in modern Britain.

My review into the future of the high street starts from the point that we must embrace change, not fight against it. Technology is already transforming the high street, yet we've hardly scratched the surface in terms of the wider potential there exists for technology to bring the community together. One example is libraries. Instead of closing them we should be turning them into thriving technology hubs.

For too long the high street has been lagging behind the pace of change. It's time it shifted to the forefront. That means meeting all manner of community needs, whether these are around a lack of affordable housing, child obesity or tackling social isolation. It means tearing up a clone town template and building a richer, more creative and inclusive environment. One that turns derelict shopping areas into innovation alleys, develops strong intergenerational networks bringing the young and old together and builds new education, leisure and health clusters.

Going to the high street will no longer be about just hitting the shops. It'll be about meeting new people, participating in new experiences, creating something and learning new things. We've lost a sense of vibrant local communities and local economies. It's time we rebuilt them.

Of course, this will require a serious review of planning and taxation, not to mention a big cultural shift and behavioral change by landlords, agents etc. The shops will not disappear entirely. But they'll no longer be the mainstay. They simply will not be able to compete with a growth in out of town mega malls and online shopping.

Building a blueprint for a post-retail landscape is the challenge our team is working on as part of an alternative review into the high street. It's no longer an alien concept. Most people can sense it coming. After all there are over 40,000 shops that remain empty in the UK. People can smell change in the air and they know the current model is living on borrowed time. Change will happen whether we like it or not, so let's make it work for everyone. The high street has a great future ahead. We just need to be brave enough to make it happen.