Build Back Better High Streets
This policy paper, published in July 2021, sets out the government’s long-term plan for high streets, with a particular focus on how they can adapt and thrive following the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The ‘Build Back Better High Streets’ strategy report begins with a foreword from the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, who states that, rather than attempting to “force the toothpaste back into the tube”, the government has accepted that “the world has changed” and our high streets “need the freedom to change with it”.
This is followed by a statement from Communities Secretary, Robert Jenrick MP, who outlines how the government is committed to delivering “an ambitious, imaginative vision of how our high streets can adapt” in order to “boost pride and prosperity as the heartbeat of local communities up and down the land”.
The importance of supporting high streets as drivers of economic growth, jobs and innovation is underlined by the fact that, in 2018, over 4m people were employed on British high streets and just over 1 in 6 British people lived on or around a high street. In setting out their vision for high street renewal, the government prioritise five key aims;
- Breathing new life into empty buildings;
- Supporting high street businesses;
- Improving the public realm;
- Creating safe and clean spaces;
- Celebrating pride in local communities.
These priorities, the report states, will be underpinned by a series of new and existing ambitious measures to help our high streets become clean, green, mixed-use spaces in which people not only want to shop but also live, work, and relax. These measures include the “unparalleled investment” that’s being made in places that need it the most through the Future High Streets Fund, the Towns Fund, the Getting Building Fund, the Welcome Back Fund, the Levelling Up Fund and UK Community Renewal Fund.
In helping to breathe new life into empty buildings, the report highlights Peterborough’s £22.9 million Town Deal, which has resulted in the purchasing of a vacant TK Maxx unit in the town centre to transform it into a mixed-use space featuring a new library, community café, study area, meeting rooms as well as rehearsal, gallery and business incubation space. This repurposing of vacant retail space with new uses has also been observed across the country, with several former Debenhams sites expected to be converted into university lecturing halls, new homes, art galleries and entertainment venues.
In further achieving this aim, the report also spotlights the Open Doors programme, a pilot scheme commissioned in 2018 to match empty properties with community groups looking for space. The Open Doors sites were used in a wide variety of ways, to support a wide range of community interests. Evaluation of the programme found that both landlords and community groups benefitted from the scheme and, following its success, the government is exploring what additional support might be needed to encourage the alternative “meanwhile” use of properties, to make sure they don’t sit empty.
In supporting high street businesses, the report notes the “comprehensive package of support” to help businesses that have been affected by Covid-19, including business grants, coronavirus loan schemes, Job Retention Scheme, and deferral of income tax payments. In the short term, businesses have benefitted from flexibility in the planning system to allow for al-fresco dining, by making it quicker and less expensive to get a temporary pavement licence, and in the long term, the business rates system is being reviewed in order to balance support for businesses with the need to fund critical local services.
In improving the public realm, the example of Swindon is given which, through it’s £25 million Future High Streets Fund allocation, will enable the Fleming Way Bus Boulevard project to create a new public transport hub, which also includes improved cycle routes and improved public space. The pioneering plans to demolish a failing shopping arcade in Stockton-on-Tees and replace it with a new riverside park are also mentioned, with the importance of designing green infrastructure into high streets where it is lacking underlined as way to drive footfall, improve air quality and increase opportunities for active travel.
To create safer and cleaner spaces, the report highlights the work of Warrington Borough Council who, after undertaking an audit of bin provision in their towns, identified that over 90% of their roadside and pedestrian area bins were in need of replacement. Supported by funding from Defra, the council installed 123 colourful new bins in these locations, improving the streetscape for their citizens and making it easier for visually impaired people to find a bin. New guidance on tackling graffiti is also in the process of being published and will be accompanied by a £2m fund to help councils keep high-street infrastructure clean.
Finally, to celebrate pride in our local communities, the report highlights the investment the government is making into the heritage on our high streets, with £95 million targeted through the High Street Heritage Action Zone (HAZ) programme to help make our high streets a place where local people want to spend time visiting. The scheme is achieving this by making improvements to the public realm, supporting new uses for neglected or empty premises and improving the face of 68 high streets across England.