Is there a high street renaissance?
I’m researching a story about the fate of the high street and quickly discovered that it’s not all doom and gloom here in the East of England. But some cities and towns are much more successful than others.
It’s not enough to have a wonderful historic centre; there’s got to be more to it than that. There has to be diversity, a sense of place. Surprisingly, Cambridge does this worse than anywhere in England: it’s been given the title of most cloned town, because of the dominance of chain multiples in the city (lovely Joshua Taylor is long gone and Heffers is now horribly Waterstoned). Others have been lucky in keeping their independent shops along with the chains. English Heritage’s review of retail centres in historic towns praises the Arc centre in Bury St Edmunds: “The scheme has actually reinforced the pattern of independent shops in other parts of the town centre…. and played a key role in bringing in greater life and vibrancy.” I’ve been to Bury and liked the buzz, but that was before the Arc was built (2009), so I’m planning a visit this week.
English Heritage also has nice things to say about Norwich’s Chapelfield (though with some reservations), and about North Norfolk market town Holt, where regeneration is led by entrepreneurs. I love the idea that a local independent business is so strong that it’s taken over at least two supermarkets – not the other way round – and is set for further acquisitions. (That’s not in the report and should be, because it’s a great story.)
I’ve also found that Internet shopping is not so pervasive as I thought: it’s only 9% of the value of all retail purchases. Is that figure falling or rising, though? Maybe people prefer the real-life experience of visiting the town’s shops and cafes, rather than just “buying stuff”. If planners and developers can create the right environment for retail (or maintain it), will it encourage a new generation of independent shops? I hope so. I’ll be finding out…