Another change, another challenge for our high street
7 May 2020
Our high street was already evolving, the lockdown has simply expediated that change and thrown additional obstacles into the mix. Never has it been more important for the planning system to enable changes to allow the high street to adapt
The 23rd March 2020 is a date that will go down in history. With the country in lockdown and people told to stay at home, we saw thousands of non-essential retailers closing their doors to the public. From clothing to electronics, hairdressers to restaurants, our town centre uses ceased to exist – temporarily at least.
Six weeks later, it remains uncertain when these non-essential businesses will get the all clear from the Government to re-open and when things may return to how we remember. As we begin to consider the ways in which we might re-adjust to life post Covid-19, there is no doubt that a considerable focus should been on how the retail and commercial sector might recover, having experienced some of the most damaging effects of the pandemic.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, retail consumer behaviour has been forced to adapt, with more and more turning to online platforms to undertake non-essential shopping or using this opportunity to cut out the non-essential expense altogether. People have adjusted and how retailers react to this will be key to how things continue.
Consumers have continued to shop without the traditional retail experience - customer interaction and staff expertise - and so there will be additional pressure on retailers to work even harder to give shoppers reasons to physically visit stores. Having been forced to spend so much time at home, how much encouragement will the public need to leave the house and visit their favourite shops? Or will we see an immediate surge when restrictions are lifted, simply due to the attraction to do what we have not been able to?
Given the nature of the pandemic the key factor for shoppers will likely be safety. Retailers will need to be flexible in order to demonstrate measures are in place to ensure social distancing can be adhered to in line with Government guidance. This might include all retailers adopting a similar approach to what we have seen in the supermarket sector over recent weeks: enforcing separation distances; placing limits on the number of customers in stores at any one time; introducing separate entry and exit points; encouraging contactless payments; PPE for workers; and staggered opening hours. However, this all depends on individual retailers being able to adopt such measures, with more established and larger footprint stores at a significant advantage. For town centres and high streets it will be essential to ensure that there is support in place for smaller and independent units, and that any retail restrictions are lifted in line with a strategy for other main town centre uses and services such as public transport.
Yesterday’s published REVO framework (Estates Gazette 6 May) to support the reopening of the retail sector was welcomed; but it is just the start. While nobody knows exactly what lies ahead, there may be further calls for the planning system to respond to potential changes in the sector. This may include: measures to respond to the rapid changes in demand for retail / commercial floorspace on our high street; temporary consents to allow changes to opening and delivery hours; physical alterations to allow for the introduction of social distancing measures; and further flexibility in decision making.
Our high street was already evolving, the lockdown has simply expediated that change and thrown additional obstacles into the mix. Never has it been more important for the planning system to enable changes to allow the high street to adapt; focussing on place and new patterns of consumer needs, to ultimately help those businesses that can bounce back.