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We should save the High Street by densifying our town and city centres
Embrace fat (city) positivity
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Today, it’s easy to get sacked from your real life job because of something you’ve posted on social media. Send a poorly worded tweet, or upload an unwise Tiktok, and you can expect to be hauled in front of your bosses first thing on Monday morning to explain yourself.
But the kids today have it so easy. Back when I was a lad, we really had to work hard to get in trouble for unwise internet posting.
For example, 20 years ago now there was no Twitter or Facebook. I had to go through the hassle of creating an entire blog, and then write long posts about how I didn’t really like working at the high street store Wilko, or Wilkinson, as it was then known.
I knew something bad was happening when one day my hit counter went from the low single digits per day to over 50. And lo, when I arrived at work the next Saturday morning, everyone else in the store had read the pompous reckonings of an arrogant 17 year old about how working on the tills was monotonous and how the customers were annoying2. I thought I was writing like Charlie Brooker, but realistically I was just being an arsehole3.
It was the era before the Notes app apology, so I did the only thing I could, and jumped before I was pushed, working the most intensely awkward two-week notice period anyone has ever experienced.
It was another brutal example of the on-going “death of the high street”. With Wilko’s likely demise, town centres will become more than ever just a place for charity shops, discount stores and boarded up pubs6.
Obviously then, everyone agrees this is a bad situation. Historically, high streets have been more than just places we go to buy things. They are also important social infrastructure to communities, as shops, pubs, (and maybe even train stations) provide us with places to meet and interact with our fellow humans, strengthening our solidarity with each other and giving our lives some meaning.
And in purely rational economic terms, I’m sure someone smarter than me can point to data that shows how agglomerating the bundle of services that high streets provide creates economic upsides7.
The problem then is what can we do to save our high streets? And that’s why today I’m going to explain why the only way to do it is to relentlessly densify our town and city centres.
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The future is predictable
Usually I like to style myself as an “actually, it’s more complicated than that” guy. But when it comes to the high street, I actually think it is pretty simple and comes back to one obvious truth: There aren’t enough people using them.
This is, of course, driven mostly by two trends: The steady growth of online shopping, which has reduced the need for us to go to physical shops to buy things8. And the rise of working from home, which means that fewer people need to go into central business districts on a daily basis.
For physical retail stores in particular, this is a deadly combination, particularly as online retailers work relentlessly to tighten the noose further. For example, Amazon has used its scale to build a revolutionary logistics model that can, in effect, get virtually any physical consumer good to your front door within 24 hours, if not sooner9.
Then if you throw Deliveroo and UberEats into the mix for short-notice, real time deliveries and you may never need to leave your house again.
Both of these changes are structural in nature, and fundamentally reshape how our economy and our society works, because neither trend is likely to reverse in the long run.
Post-pandemic, even if there is a little backsliding, there is still inevitably going to be a new equilibrium. For better or worse, we now have an entire professional class of people who will never go into an office five days a week ever again, and an ever-increasing proportion of retail sales taking place online. And that means fewer people walking Britain’s high streets. And if we don’t act, the problem is only going to get worse.
Density is the only answer
So the high street’s decline is structural, and we can see the bad downstream consequences of this phenomenon (such as the lack of social infrastructure or community cohesion). This means we need to accept the reality that the traditional economics of the high street are never coming back.
And so if we want to save the high street, we basically need to choose from one of two policy goals.
We could try and persuade people to patronise their high streets more. We could implement policies to persuade people to eschew the convenience, choice and flexibility of shopping online and working from home. It wouldn’t be completely unheard of – France has banned free shipping and even forced companies like Amazon to have a minimum delivery fee on books to keep book shops competitive.
But this would obviously be crazy. The reason why online shopping and WFH are popular is because they are better12. It’s a good thing that we can get almost anything shipped to our homes quickly, and it is good that many more jobs can be done remotely, and that people can have a better work/life balance, and so on.
This means there is only one other available solution. If we want high streets to remain viable, we need to increase the number of people who live in the centre of our towns and cities.
This seems almost too obvious to point out. But if you imagine a shop that has lost half its footfall, if you have double the population in the shop’s ‘catchment area’, suddenly you have a viable business again.
And so if we were to have more densely populated town and city centres, the residents would help seed viable high streets, providing customers for shops, restaurants, pubs and other social infrastructure.
There would also be some extremely good second-order consequences from such a movement too. For example, public transport is more viable when more people live close together, which makes car-free living easier. And happily, our high streets are already places where you can typically find buses and train stations – meaning that unlike building new homes elsewhere, much of the infrastructure needed to support them is already in place. And this would be obviously great for the climate too.
Of course, I’m not the first person to identify that lack of density is a problem. Many actual experts have got there ahead of me. The lack of density is highlighted as a particular problem in Michael Gove’s famous Levelling-Up Whitepaper that was published 18 months ago13. It points out how British towns and cities are typically less densely populated than those found elsewhere in Europe.
Similarly, the government is well aware of the high streets problem and has made a number of policy interventions over the last few years.
In July 2021, the “Build back better high streets” plan was published. And since the government has variously announced several pots of cash totalling hundreds of millions of pounds of “future high street” funds are being dished out.
And probably the most impactful intervention in recent years was a change to some of the planning rules that affect town centres. Essentially, in 2020 a new building use-class - “E” was created, which allows commercial premises to be converted between things like shops, gyms, nurseries and cafes without needing to apply to the council for permission.
Development rules were tweaked too, to make it easier to extend existing buildings by up to two extra floors. And similarly, in 2021, the rules were relaxed to make it easier to turn existing, empty commercial property into homes.
And more broadly, there are lots of people who are thinking about this problem. It isn’t hard to find articles and papers pitching ideas on how to revive the high street.
For example, here’s a report from Manchester Metropolitan University, admittedly published before the pandemic, which identifies numerous challenges faced by high streets. It identifies issues like a need for for better “placemaking” or how it would be good to establish more “business improvement districts”.
I’m sure that all of the above is, or would, make a difference. More flexible use-classes will make it easier for businesses to setup, and who can complain about the opportunity to add an extra storey on top of buildings? Similarly, some of the issues that Manchester Met identifies sound pretty good. It is better that these things are happening than that they are not.
But I fear that all of them are missing the bigger picture – and aren’t an appropriately sized response to the enormous structural change that is taking place.
And sure, throughout all of the above there are nods to the need to increase footfall – the lack of people. But I think we need to think bigger. Literally.
How high streets can thrive
Something that really frustrates me about a lot of the high street handwringing is how unambitious it is. People acknowledge that ‘real’ businesses aren’t coming back, so instead proposals are made to let out unused units to local charities. Perhaps the council will put a makeshift community centre or a blood donation clinic in the old Wilko building. And they can make the town less depressing by painting a nice mural over the boarded up shops. Maybe they’ll even propose fiddling with business rates as an implicit beg to businesses to stick around.
Similarly, among literary types there’s almost a patronising charity-like relationship to independent bookshops. And the few that haven’t gone out of business have a revenue model reliant on goodwill and moralising tweets from achingly right-on authors.
But I worry that none of this is very sustainable. Anything local authorities do is inherently at risk of the political winds changing. Anything relying on goodwill is at the mercy of the next recession.
However, it doesn’t have to be this way. There’s a better way. An O’Malleyist way14.
Imagine a typically dowdy British high street. Not Oxford or York. But one of the countless other decaying shopping parades. Think Leicester or Gloucester. Or Chatham. Or even smaller towns like Gravesend or Kettering.
Now imagine ripping down the low-rise buildings and replacing them with significantly taller buildings - perhaps 10 or 12 storeys high, maybe more. The ground floors of each remain as commercial units – and we can put some flats up above. Not just social housing, but some high-end ‘luxury’ flats too, to encourage a mixed-income local population. And because I’m nice, I’ll let you keep the nice old church and the historic grade 2-listed marketplace building, or whatever.
The flats will definitely find people to occupy them, because we currently have a massive housing crisis15. And in an instant (I make it sound so easy), the central populations of each area has increased dramatically. That’s people who will shop at local shops, eat at local restaurants, drink at local pubs, and grow the local economy.
Suddenly, the social infrastructure is no longer something that needs to be an act of charity. The shops, restaurants and pubs are busy and turning a profit because there are enough people who actually want to go there.
An opportunity for the Tories?!
So this is my brilliant plan. I’m sure it wouldn’t work for everywhere, but I’m confident that increasing the number of people, thus increasing the local footfall is a solid plan for many of our beleaguered high streets.
But what would it take to actually happen?
I’m not smart enough to know exactly what the right levers to pull are, but I can’t help but wonder if, in lieu of a much broader reform to the planning laws (thanks for nothing, Theresa Villiers), there could be scope for the actual Tories to do something here narrower, as crazy as it sounds?
Again, I’m out of my depth talking specifically about exactly how it might map on to the Parliamentary timetable. Nor do I know whether the government would want to actually try anything beyond their widely publicised five priorities (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance). And I accept that any attempt to change anything will result in tedious petitions about “historic rooflines” and the provision of parking spaces.
But I think there’s a
pretty strong case for the Tories on paper, in purely political terms16.
Why? Because liberalising the planning laws on high streets to enable more rapid, and much taller redevelopment wouldn’t actually hit anyone who is going to vote for them (very few people), or anyone who might do so in the future (slightly more people if they don’t completely go bananas after they lose the next election).
Labour wouldn’t oppose such reforms, as Keir Starmer has made planning his one signature thing he is ahead of public opinion on.
And the functional result from a cynical electoral map perspective would be more of the sorts of people who tend to vote Labour (younger, lower-income, renting) remaining inefficiently located in Labour-voting cities. There would be fewer millennials priced out of the cities, like me and my partner, taking our left-ish political values to the shires and the suburbs.
And hell, the Tories could even frame such a move as a Greenbelt-protection measure. As the denser we build in our towns and cities, the fewer homes we will need to build on greenbelt land. A skyscraper in the centre of town could save an entire field on the periphery17. And history would give Rishi a legacy of having saved the high street, a nice thematic dovetail with his parents running a high-street pharmacy themselves.
However, I suspect in reality we may need to wait for a Labour government to implement such measures, hopefully as a wider package of planning reforms. I also suspect that a Labour government might also be more willing to use the strong arm and the chequebook of the state to drive this sort of regeneration18.
So I hope that Labour, or even the Tories, will think carefully about our high streets and do what is actually necessary to save them – and densify. Before the entire high street goes the way of my career at Wilko.
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In a previous email I said I needed another 100 sign-ups. Now I’m saying I need another 88. But just for (some) clarity, definitely more than 12 of you have signed up since that first email. But the first figure was for, basically the minimum viable numbers, which I’m now close to hitting. So this new target of another 88 people is what will put me comfortably into the realms of “this is a credible part of my business” territory.
I’m still bitter about one customer – whose name I can still remember – who, when the credit card machine was malfunctioning smugly leaned towards me and suggested that the problem was “poor employee training”.
I had a line in my original blogpost about how I’m jealous of the people on the team who get to work the shop floor restocking the shelves and “facing” – moving goods to the front of shelves – and how I wished I could roam around with a pricing gun in one hand, and a bottle of Domestos in the other. So when I arrived at work that day, the staff coordinated to parade past me with a pricing gun and a Domestos in hand, to taunt me.
This is why they never let me work the shelves. I was too good at being a cashier. Let this be a lesson kids: Don’t work too hard.
I don’t want to claim that I could have saved them. But back when I was working there as the weekend kid two decades ago, earning £4.10 an hour, I wrote a letter to head office. I proposed numerous software improvements to the till software, that would reduce the number of key-presses, and increase the throughput of customers. Sadly, I didn’t receive any response despite my ideas being objectively good and correct. Because I was exactly as insufferable back then as am I now.
I remember going to Lithuania in 2015 and being very struck by how the town and country were both littered with enormous, abandoned concrete edifices that were the product of an empire that no longer exists. “It must be weird living in the shadow of the empty shell of what used to be a huge sports complex,” I thought. Anyway, now if I want to get this same sense of post-apocalyptic despair I just go into town.
If I was smarter I’d use the phrase “utility function” here, and pretend I know what it means.
I think retail experts would chart the decline of the high street with the rise of big-box stores and out of town shopping. Which is no doubt true. But obviously online is now the biggest threat to traditional high street retail.
My grand theory of Wilko is that it was particularly doomed, as it didn’t sell groceries, so there are fewer drivers for people to visit at short notice (food perishes and I need dinner tonight), and Amazon has colonised the market for “lump of plastic that does a thing” - like when you need some new plastic storage boxes or some bin bags. My own trigger-happiness with Amazon has definitely increased over the years and now I get all sorts of trivial things delivered.
Tech journalists often trade stories with each other of press trips where brands fly them out to glamorous cities and luxury hotels, to an extent that leaves me feeling a little queasy given the implicit quid-pro-quo. That’s why the best press trips I’ve ever been on were to the two Ocado warehouses, where I got to see behind the scenes of how Ocado prepares orders for customers. And it is frankly, incredible - especially the latest generation of warehouse, where everything is managed through an enormous, sci-fi grid of washing-machine sized robots. Annoyingly my write-ups are no longer online, but one day I will repost them.
Even clothes shopping is getting easier online. Amazon will ship a box of clothes out for you to try and return. And it is increasingly easy to imagine a future where we’ll be able to virtually try accurately measured clothes using some combination of augmented reality and generative AI. Or you could just do what I do and wear basically the same clothes every day (save for variations in colour), like a cartoon character.
I do, however, think we need to carefully ensure that delivery drivers, gig economy workers and the like enjoy strong employment rights and protections, and we don’t let the likes of Amazon treat the people doing the hardest work terribly. (See James Bloodworth’s excellent Hired by clicking that, er, Amazon link.)
It’s sort-of amazing how this feels like a lifetime ago now, and how it is basically taken as a given that nothing is going to happen on it given the current government.
I am absolutely running this “O’Malleyism” thing into the ground now.
Don’t worry, you won’t have to move to a flat in the town centre. But hey, maybe your kids might want to live somewhere with bars and nightlife?
If you’re still not convinced, please bear in mind that I am obviously correct about this because Simon Jenkins holds the opposite view to me.
Just don’t tell anyone that once we have skyscrapers in our towns I want to then use the saved greenbelt land for solar farms.
Economists can tell me why I’m wrong but I’m struggling to imagine why a Labour government using public money to create a state property developer that will design and build and then sell off private homes can do anything other than turn a massive profit, given the wider housing pressures?