Rewilding The High Street

by Dan Thompson

I’ve been interested in finding new uses for old buildings since I was 13, and started working at the Connaught Theatre in Worthing. I fell in love with the abandoned theatre next door to the main house and spent years bringing it back into use. My first job, after messing up A Levels, was as House Manager for that space – and my office was in an old barber’s shop which was the building’s original foyer.

Since 2008, most of my work has been in town centres, on High Streets, and using empty shops. I don’t like to call myself an expert, but I have a good understanding of what the problems are and how we might fix them. It’s based on working in lots of small towns and minor cities as well as some key projects in London. It’s come from hundreds of conversations with shopkeepers, shopping centre managers, and with the people who use (or don’t use) those centres.

So it’s frustrating that, twelve years on, we’re having much the same conversation about what retail model might replace the retail model that has failed our communities. The truth is – the reason lots of High Streets have failed is because lots of High Streets weren’t very good any more. The shops were dull. Who will really miss BHS, or Debenhams, or even Woolworths?

And the end of these failed chains coincided with a natural wastage. There was a huge retail boom from the 1960s to the 1980s, with a rise in record shops and independent boutiques and handbag shops and stores full of lights. And over the last ten years that generation have retired. That growth in retail was never sustainable.

But, to paraphrase Dark Mountain, the end of the High Street as we know it is not the end of the High Street. In the last ten years, we have also seen a rise in good retailers. Small indie shops, supporting themselves through social media and supported by campaigns like Totally Locally and Record Store Day, are back. Great bookshops, indie record stores that put on gigs, quality grocers, new bakers. Mary Portas famously said in her High Street Review that the days of independent shops were over. She was, I’m pleased to say, wrong.

What we’re seeing isn’t a reinvention of the High Street. Nothing we’re seeing is new, from the baker to the pottery studio, the sewing room to the maker space. These aren’t new ideas, but ones which had been priced out of the High Street by those big retail chains, who had created larger units on the historic footprint of smaller stores, and driven up town centre rents.

What’s happening is a rewilding of the High Street. An ecology that had been damaged by big box retail and the clone town is being allowed to revert to its natural, balanced state. Long live the High Street.

The Empty Shops Network was founded by Dan Thompson in 2008, to share the knowledge and skills we need to make the High Street and the town centre part of the community again. We provide free resources, and develop projects with partners like local councillors, charities, and arts organisations..

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