Michelle Ovens, director of Small Business Saturday, believes building communities around small businesses can save the high street.
Amid the downbeat coverage of the high street over the past year, one would expect the Local Data Company’s findings to be presented as part of a continuing downward trend. In reality, a 0.3% rise in vacancies is relatively benign compared with four years ago, when retail property voids increased by almost 25%.
A 32% rise in the number of stores being redeveloped last year suggests that landlords and managers see a long-term future in their bricks-and-mortar premises, but only if they change to fit the needs of traders and consumers on the high street.
People want to live close to character-filled high streets, not soulless corporate districts
The UK high street has changed dramatically, particularly since the birth of ecommerce platforms. But instead of calling for a return to a 1950s-style high street that no longer exists, it is time to embrace the changing nature of our small businesses.
In 2018 alone, more than 10,000 British restaurant workers lost their jobs and almost 1,000 pubs closed, as lifestyle and experiential businesses explode on to the high street.
Research from American Express and GlobalData last year found the independent retail sector as a whole is set for only 0.3% growth between 2017 and 2023. At the same time, entertainment and experiential businesses such as cinemas and escape rooms are set to grow by a huge 17%, hair and beauty by 16%, and the health and fitness sector by 15%. Small firms accounted for 70% of new private sector jobs last year, so these adaptations mean more opportunities for people in every part of the UK.
In the social media age, we are constantly told that our high streets will disappear because of the wealth of online options, but what we regularly find is that, if used correctly, physical spaces can be the catalyst for the regeneration of communities.
Qualitative research shows that people want to live close to character-filled high streets, not soulless corporate districts. Even disadvantaged towns hit hardest by the departure of conventional industries and transport link declines, such as Grimsby, have attracted more trade in the high street and town centre thanks to innovative local entrepreneurs with a drive to see their local communities succeed.
Small businesses very often have a passion and purpose above and beyond profit and, by building communities around small businesses, we can make the high street a flourishing and profitable place to trade, too. What this leads to is more diversity in employment, which should be applauded, while fostering a sense of regional and community loyalty in high street small businesses. This can be a model for the future.
The question is not whether the 11.5% of high street premises currently vacant can be filled – it’s about what will fill them. Small business campaigners, local enterprise partnerships, councils and industry bodies must adjust to the evolving nature of our communities and their needs, not to a nostalgic vision of the high street that belongs in the past.