Not all high streets are created equal. The government has just announced the first 14 high streets to receive financial support as part of a pilot called the ‘High Streets Task Force’, which will be rolled out across the country over 2020. Each will receive up to £25million worth of “training, face-to-face support and access to research” from industry experts who will team up with local leaders.
Left - Huyton Town Centre in Knowsley set to get £25 million of investment
In July the £3.6 billion ‘Towns Fund’ was announced by the government, including this £1 billion High Streets Fund to “help high streets adapt and evolve while remaining vibrant places for their community”.
“This government is investing £3.6billion in our great towns, including £1billion to help our high streets to adapt and evolve while remaining vibrant and safe places at the heart of our communities." said Communities Secretary, Robert Jenrick said last week.
“Having announced the first 101 high streets that can benefit from £25 million each back in the summer, I am announcing support from our new High Streets Task Force for a further 20 places and naming 14 of these today.” he said.
So, the government has a ‘Future High Streets Fund’ and a ‘High Streets Task Force’ each giving high-streets £25 million to boost their local economies. This is fantastic, but, is this spreading the money too thin? While any money is welcome, wouldn’t the government be better targeting fewer towns with more money to really have a lasting and deeper effect to stem the bleed from our high-streets?
Many of these high-streets are lost and are never going to thrive while there are many that are simply declining, can be saved and just need an injection of cash and energy.
On the recently announced list of 14 high streets is Thornton Heath in Croydon in South London. Apart from being the home of Stormzy, the majority of people would have never have heard of it. Thornton Heath hasn’t had a thriving high-street since the 1950s. Apart from a 1970s Tesco there really is nothing there and never will be. Being a realist, the area doesn’t have much money and is far down on the list of being gentrified. The local council recently spent money on paving and planting so it has had some grass roots investment to boost its apperance. Supporting businesses which don’t have the customers to pass the baton onto is pointless. Thornton Heath is more a local parade of shops than a ‘high-street’. The government would be better off targeting the larger and more connected Croydon high-street nearby which is in desperate need of investment especially with the wobbling of the proposed Westfield shopping centre project
Looking at the announced list some look like tertiary high-streets such as Swinton Town centre in Salford, Stirchley in Birmingham and Huyton Town Centre in Knowsley. And while it’s great to give these areas a refresh, the future of high-streets is fewer but better. The places announced will benefit from bespoke support and guidance from the new ‘High Streets Task Force’, announced by the government in response to recommendations of an expert panel on the high street chaired by Sir John Timpson. The High Streets Task Force will give “face-to-face support, access to cutting-edge research, new online training, and local footfall data to give businesses that vital edge and transform local town centres”. The government says it wants to "level" up towns and regions, “ensuring prosperity and opportunity are available to everyone”.
But, can "up to £25 million" be anything more than cosmetic?
Minister for the Northern Powerhouse, Rt Hon Jake Berry, said, “Every place has its own unique strengths and challenges but all our town centres and high streets have one thing in common – they are the lifeblood of communities.
“The tailored support from our new High Streets Task Force and up to £25 million each from the Towns Fund for 100 places gives communities the money and support they need to unleash the potential of their towns.
“This people’s government is backing people across the Northern Powerhouse and every part of the UK to succeed no matter where they live.” he said.
Right - Thornton Heath in the London Borough of Croydon has already had recent investment to its high street with new pavements and planting
The high-street ‘Task Force’ is run by the ‘Institute for Place Management’ on behalf of the government, and is holding an open recruitment for a Board Chair to provide expert leadership to this programme. The Task Force brings together a range of expert groups on reinventing and restructuring places, including the Royal Town Planning Institute and The Design Council.
The government is also seeking views on whether an online register of commercial properties would make it easier to bring empty shops back into use. It wants to understand people’s experiences of leasing commercial property – with a view to making ownership of high street properties more transparent, making it easier for businesses and community groups to find space and supporting investment in local areas.
This recent announcement builds on ongoing government action to support high streets, including cutting small retailers’ business rates bills by 50% from April, following more than £13 billion of business rates support since 2016.
The recent 2019 Conservative manifesto promised, “we will cut the burden of tax on business by reducing business rates. This will be done via a fundamental review of the system”. They pledged to increase the business rates discount available to businesses with a rateable value below £51,000 from 33 per cent to 50 per cent in 2020-21. They also plan to extend the discount to “grassroots music venues, small cinemas and pubs.” The changes to business rates would only apply to England as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland set their own business rate regimes. The discount is set to last for just one financial year.
Public money should always be a catalyst for private investment. The government investing money into local high-streets is a welcome initiative, but spreading it too thin and wasting money on high streets which look like they will never grow or thrive is a wasted opportunity. While new pavements and a cosmetic tart up does change perceptions, it will be small businesses and start-ups that will really change these areas together with private landlords. This is where a reassessment of business rates will be needed. The new money will be a boost, but will it be enough in the right places? Ideally it needs to ripple out into the local economy and help high-streets to survive the threat of online and reduced footfalls long after it has gone.
So, where should the government be putting its money? AskTraders, a company providing detailed information about share trading and brokers, conducted an analysis of the UK’s high streets, looking at ATM, bank branches, retail store closures and ONS % growth of the retail sector over the course of 2019. It found the “most declining” high streets were to be Poole, Blackpool - Blackpool is on the government list of 101 high streets announced in the summer - Warrington, Manchester and Swindon. Poole High Street has seen overall retail growth fall by four percent in 2019. Stopping the decline is just as important as providing a boost and maybe these larger centres would be a better investment to stop the rot.
Local councils can change parking restrictions and charges, or work with transport providers to make it easier for people to visit the shops. Local people will be glad to see investment on their high streets, but it will be profitable and sustainable businesses with customers spending money which will leave the lasting legacy.
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The biggest thing to hit Croydon since the tram, Banksy’s pop-up, Gross Domestic Product, the homewares brand from Banksy, opened a shop showcasing his latest and greatest hits collection of social commentary. The affordable, well, in the context that one of his paintings recently went for £10 million, pieces are available through a ballot system. You’ll be notified if you’re lucky to win anything and then you have the option to buy it. You only get one pick!
Here’s my choice: “This fashion-forward accessory is made from a genuine real life house brick and is perfect for the kind of person who doesn’t carry much but might need to whack someone in the face. Probably no less practical than the output of most haute couture fashion houses. Made from random bits of old handbag so yours may differ from the one pictured. Signed.” says the website.
Not that Banksy seems to know that clutches don’t usually have handles, but who am I to tell him anything…
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Mention Croydon and the first thing the majority of people say is ‘Boxpark’. That, and the fact the place is a bit run down, is all people seem to know about this outer South London suburb. The metal shipping container type concept of Boxpark has become the ‘up and coming’ stamp of hipster approval and many councils and developers see it as an opportunity to regenerate their town centres, drive footfall and appeal to a younger audience.
Since its launch in 2011, Boxpark has morphed from retail to food outlets, and, now, work places. Just announced, Boxpark has nationwide expansion plans alongside two brand new concepts; BoxOffice and BoxHall. They currently have 3 sites in Shoreditch, Croydon and Wembley. and there are plans to expand with a further ten new sites over the next five years.
Left - Boxparks new concepts; BoxOffice & BoxHall
The new concept, BoxOffice, is a co-working space which will be incorporated into brand new Boxpark sites. The Boxpark and BoxOffice schemes will be a 50,000 - 150,000 sq ft. in size with developments featuring the Boxpark streetfood and bars set up on the ground floor and leisure operators such as virtual reality, cinemas, crazy golf and karaoke on the first floor and between two to four floors of co-working space above. Boxpark will work along alongside existing co-working companies on the launch and operation of the new BoxOffice concept.
BoxHall is a new food hall concept. These smaller, 10,000-20,000 sq ft, food and beverage destinations will be based on existing sites within city centres across the UK, featuring between six and twelve street food vendors at each site. Boxpark’s turnover is reported to be currently in the region of £10 million a year.
Boxpark founder and CEO Roger Wade said, “I’m really excited to announce our plans for our brand new BoxOffice and BoxHall concepts. Boxpark has always been an innovator in the retail and leisure sector and these brand new formats demonstrate our investment in continuing to evolve both the brand and the sites we build and operate. These two major new innovations will help us secure a further 10 sites across the UK over the next five years.”
They haven’t named the sites, but proposals were submitted to Brighton & Hove City Council to revive the crumbling Victorian arches on the seafront, and will incorporate a new premium hotel operator alongside a Boxpark.
Founder Roger Wade’s background is retail and he was the founder of footwear brand, Boxfresh. The pop-up Boxpark idea has been successful because it has mirrored Generation Rent. The temporary nature and its choice of more ‘edgy’ locations needs less investment and has less local competition. It’s the opposite of chainy, while still being a chain and situated at travel hotspots for a generation who aren’t learning to drive. Read ChicGeek Comment Neighbourhood Shops - here
Councils are also encouraging them too. Croydon Council gave Boxpark a £3million loan, plus another £180,000 grant of public cash towards its launch party. Croydon Boxpark has 40 traders from around the world, both established and start-up, set in over 90 shipping containers. With Croydon as a further example, while the Boxpark seems to be thriving near the main East Croydon station with direct trains to London and Brighton, Westfield’s much feted shopping centre in the middle of the town seems to be wobbling and being pushed back further and further. Bricks and mortar is expensive and these easily converted containers are ripe for small start ups, offer more customer choice and can be moved easily if a location doesn't work.
Right - Time Out Market London opening at Waterloo Station in 2021
When Boxpark first opened in Shoreditch it was retail focussed with brands such as Calvin Klein Underwear and Nike. It quickly moved more into food when it realised young people wanted experience over stuff. The two further Boxparks were purely food focussed. Now, they’ve realised there is potential to develop further and make ‘Box’ the ‘Easy’ brand for younger generations.
Eating at these places is cheaper and cooler than eating in standard restaurants. It has spawned imitators such as Pop in Brixton and GRUB in Manchester while chains like Byron Burgers and Jamie’s Italian have all suffered. Shopping centres and town centres are seeing that these hipster concepts appeal to Millennials and Generation Z who want authenticity, and, while a similar idea, they feel like the antithesis of the traditional American mall type food courts.
Food is the fulcrum for all these developments, and it's the theatre of food that creates the buzz and energy missing from many modern retail locations. People need to eat, it brings people together and makes them leave the house.
These mini-food halls are seeing a boon ATM. ‘Market Hall’ opened at Victoria Station and Fulham with a third opening, the flagship, ‘Market Hall West End’, opening late 2019 in the old BHS building off Oxford Street and will become the largest food hall in the UK. Covering 37,500 sq ft over three floors, with over 800 covers, "this impressive space will feature twelve independent food vendors made up of crowd favourites in Fulham and Victoria as well as some new faces, four bars, a children’s play area, three dedicated events spaces and TV recording studio including a demo kitchen". Market Hall founder, Simon Anderson, told the Big Hospitality website in April 2019, “We are concentrating our attention for the next year and a half within the M25 as we know the London audience well. When we go further afield we’ll go to the north first as half our management team is based in Yorkshire and has a good understanding of that marketplace. Within the next few years we hope to have three or four more sites in London and three or four out of London.”
These modern food halls are like an internet portal or host. The umbrella brand hosts numerous smaller and unknown brands offering more choice and novelty while charging a fee and not getting their hands too dirty. Shopping centre owner intu asked Market Hall to open at their Lakeside centre in Thurrock this Spring. I wrote this last year, ChicGeek Comment Returning Malls To Markets
'The Hall’ “brings together dynamic and independent food traders from across the south east and use the big-city energy, theatre and excitement of street-food to create a compelling dining experience for intu Lakeside’s 20 million annual footfall” says the blurb.
The Hall at intu Lakeside is 14,500 sq ft and includes seven kitchens, a coffee shop, pop-up areas for food trucks, two bars and seating for 680 people.
Other examples include the Time Out Market London, opening at Waterloo station in 2021 - Read more ChicGeek Comment Investors Letting The Train Take The Strain and Eataly, opening on Broadgate, next to Liverpool Street station, in 2020.
Left - Eataly opening on Broadgate in 2020
This global Italian food “marketplaces” operator, which combines retail and restaurant concessions, already has locations in New York City, Chicago, Boston and Los Angeles, as well as in Japan and Brazil. It promises a selection of “the best Italian products, restaurants, bars, quick services, exciting on-site production laboratories, and a cooking school.”
The Boxpark brand is the leader in this area of pop-up food malls and developers and towns are seeing this as a worthy replacement for the contraction in retail demand. The new BoxOffice and BoxHall concepts seem like logically growth of a popular brand.
Umbrella brands like Boxpark also know councils and shopping centre owners will offer financial incentives for them to bring these currently cool concepts to their locations. The only difficulty I see is expecting an unlimited supply of authentic, ambitious and quality start-ups to fill them. These concepts are only as strong as their groups of operators and it will be a fine balance of supporting them while profiting from them.
Shopping centres are morphing to survive. Opening cinemas, restaurants and other attractions to get people out of the house and their tenants happy with more footfall, they are trying to move away from being a one trick shopping pony. This is old news.
But, it’s all so chainy and sanitised; the antithesis of what is cool today. It’s basic.
Left - St George’s Market - Belfast
What’s cool today is start-ups, seasonal produce, artisans, craftspeople, farmer’s markets, Boxparks, ethnic food and passionate and motivated people seeing the whites of their customer’s eyes.
Shopping centres need to harness this energy and support it.
I’ve often been jealous of the historical, covered markets they have in many Northern towns. This isn’t poncey, Daylesford Organic type markets, but real markets for everybody, offering quality and affordability. Lots of fresh produce and home made products. I know, if I had one closer, I would use it.
I visited Belfast 18 months ago and fell upon St George’s Market. It was a mid-week wednesday in October and the whole place was buzzing. Built between 1890 and 1896, and supported by The National Lottery, the restoration preserved its Victorian heritage, from the authentic stone bricks to its Bangor Blue roof slates and replicas of original Victorian shops.
As well as restoring an important historical building, the project created a modern market place providing a space to trade and grow for over 170 small local businesses, and supports around 400 jobs each week.
Since its renovation in 1999, St George’s Market has gone from strength to strength, trebling the number of days it trades from one day a week to three. The huge variety and quality of products on offer helps to attract over 600,000 visitors each year. St George’s Market was named the UK's Best Large Indoor Market 2014 by the National Association of British Market Authorities.
There were signs on the doors saying there was a wait-list for stalls. It was a mix of food, arts and crafts, vintage artefacts and unique gifts. Of course, not everything was to the highest taste, but that’s the point of a market, it’s an excitement of discovery and unpredictablity. The opposite of a modern and bland shopping centre. It was thriving and it had an energy that I wanted to spend time in.
I recently visited Centre:MK in Milton Keynes. It’s a busy, 1970s listed shopping centre at the heart of the city. I had a walk around and noticed, huddled under a flyover type structure, was an outside market: little stalls selling vegetables and other types of street market products.
Shopping centres need to bring this inside, polish it up a bit and expand it. But not sanitise it. These types of markets were often looked down upon, much like Primark was - Read more here - but things change and we need a return to a type of frequent shopping that we’ve been doing for thousands of years.
Right - Kirkgate Market - Leeds
This is the modern version of an ancient market. Somewhere I can get great bread, home-made chocolates for presents and authentic products from all the nationalities who have made their home in the UK.
I live in Croydon. They opened a Boxpark over a year ago. It’s fantastic. It’s a large food court which feels like you’re trying something new and getting passion in every mouthful. It’s just food and you congregate on large communal tables in the centre after visiting what feels like an unlimited choice of cuisines.
People are just as tired of chain restaurants as they are of chain stores. It’s time for independents. These shopping centres could support whole armies of people itching to start their own enterprise. There are so many people wanting to follow their dreams and try something new without the prohibitive cost of opening a shop or starting a website. These brands are very active on social media and offer newness and a point of difference.
Large towns and highly populated areas could easily sustain a thriving market type concept. The shopping centre needs to be an umbrella rather than a controller. The other shops would benefit from more frequent visitors and the buzz of the shopping centre. This is also how future brands will start.
Remember Marks & Spencer started on a market stall in Leeds after all.