Earlier in the summer I attended the ambitiously titled ‘Prototyping the Future High Street Event’ at Manchester Business School. The aim of the event was to create a vision, via sharing ideas and using lego (!), of what various Manchester based stakeholders wanted high streets to look like in 20 years or so. Most of us will be acutely aware of the widely known problems that high streets have faced over the last decade or so. The caricature of streets lined with betting shops, pawn brokers, takeaways and empty units is all too evident in many of the most deprived areas of Manchester. However, even once highly sought after city centre locations such as King Street now also have many empty units. From my own perspective therefore, now would seem to be the perfect time to re-evaluate how we view the role and purpose of our high streets.
At the event itself a wide array of interests was represented through property developers, retail experts as well as local community leaders and academics. It was heartening therefore that despite the vastly different perspectives round the table a very clear consensus was formed. The picture painted was of a clean, green and secure space where people would want to simply spend time to socialise or otherwise without necessarily being on the high street in order to shop or spend money. The other part of the vision was that the high street should have a distinctive local feel which reflects the area in which it is situated. The conclusion was that this approach would not only yield obvious cultural benefits but also result in more money staying within the local area. Finally there was also an interesting concord in the room, not shared by me, that part of the high street should be ‘technology free’ zones where people were prevented from using their smart phones or tablets by a boundary disabling device. I felt this perhaps to be partly explained that for the first time in a while I may have been the youngest attendee as there was a conspicuous lack of young people present.
Part of the unique process of the event was that delegates could imagine their future high streets without constraining themselves as to what is or is not actually possible. In other words current technological or legal constraints are cast aside in the mind’s eye of the delegates. This technique is known as ‘science fiction prototyping’. Whilst the exercise was obviously fun and liberating it did leave rather a lot of unanswered practical questions to be answered if the group consensus was to be realised. The most obvious question of course is how to secure funding in order to improve transport links to the high street and convert areas into pedestrianised green areas. The other immediate obstacle standing in the way of achieving a broad array of shops and functions giving a high street a distinctive local feel is the fact that many high street units are owned by commercial landlords. Unsurprisingly the prime concern of most of these corporate entities is to extract the maximum possible yearly yields from their investments. Consequently high rents (as well as high business rates) can prevent start-ups and local enterprises from being able to establish themselves on many of our high streets in Manchester.
A traditional solution for local authorities would be to use their powers of compulsory purchase to acquire high street units for use as say venues for local pop up enterprises or community spaces. Whilst local authorities budgets are currently squeezed their ability to actually purchase sites or units is significantly limited. UK Local authorities currently generate 20% of their own income whilst the European average is nearer 50%. Perhaps then greater devolution following the Scottish referendum and more cash raising powers in Manchester would enable the council to have greater control over how its high streets look. If such powers were available it would be interesting to see how committed Manchester City Council would be to converting high streets in line with the vision imagined at the event. It would certainly mean a steer away from a reliance on retail and a radical perception shift in terms of viewing people as citizens rather than shoppers or consumers. It seems to be that if this refocus could be achieved and local authorities can secure the funding necessary to effect change, then our high streets could emerge radically changed and of real benefit to the communities in which they are situated.
Robert J Brown