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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Owen Hatherley

Covid has finished off the old high street, but we can replace it with something better

The central bus station in Preston, August 2020.
The central bus station in Preston, August 2020. Photograph: Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images

In 2011, a new kind of shopfront started appearing in towns and cities across the UK. It would bear the name and photograph of something that wasn’t actually there – Virtual Gift Shop, Virtual Fashion, Virtual Sports Shop, to name three I saw in Redcar. What was so depressing about this was the absence of any new ideas, any conception that there was anything else the town might need to fill these dormant spaces. A social centre? A cinema? A space for elderly people to socialise? No – instead, an officially mandated ghost.

One of the effects of the pandemic will be the absolute decimation of that long-troubled thing, “the high street”. Chain retail is in serious trouble, with Debenhams and Topshop facing bankruptcy, alongside chain restaurants, which rely on constant footfall and unstable venture capital. Thirty-eight chain retailers and restaurants have called in administrators in 2020 alone. It seems unlikely that anyone will really want many of these back. What will happen to the shells they leave behind?

First, it has to be admitted that the game is up, but some still fiercely resist defeat. For instance, the huge Bishopsgate Goodsyard project for skyscrapers of luxury housing and hotels on a base of chain restaurants and retail in Shoreditch: it has been opposed by the two local authorities its footprint crosses, but was given approval by the mayor of London in early December despite its clear obsolescence. Soon enough, developers will just stop proposing things like this.

What will happen then is presaged in Robert Jenrick’s reforms to the planning system. Adopted with great haste, these are a clear attempt to resolve this crisis by attempting to reinflate the property bubble. Expanding permitted development rights makes retail and office buildings fair game for cheap, shoddy conversion into housing – a system already adopted for light industrial units, pubs and churches. Empty malls and department stores will likely follow. In an urban economy that centres around either retail or property, you can simply transform the former into the latter.

What the reforms will do is abolish local oversight over planning, transforming urban areas into unplanned “growth” zones. Not only would this make retail conversions incredibly easy, paving the way for a new wave of cheap, substandard housing, but any usage of units outside of housing is becoming prohibitively difficult with the collapse of the cultural economy. Alongside the death of chain retail and restaurants, cash-strapped small music venues and social spaces have had a disastrous year. But Isaac Rose of Greater Manchester Housing Action notes that there are two potential futures here: “it is possible to imagine the collapse of retail in city centres, plus proper funding and a clear strategy from local government to promote such activity” could result in “ex-retail space being handed over to community or co-operative projects – provided they don’t all get turned into Jenrick boxflat housing first”.

There are already examples of this across the UK. The “Preston model” of community wealth building emerged as a direct result of the collapse of that city’s retail economy. Preston had staked everything on a planned outdoor mega-mall centred around a John Lewis, which would have involved demolishing its epic brutalist bus station. When that fell through, a new leftwing leadership in the city council pioneered a model of local development based on small businesses and co-operatives, which included refurbishing what already exists – namely the bus station and the city’s Victorian market. By the time the pandemic hit, Preston was thriving.

This made Preston totemic for the left – a model for “21st-century municipal socialism”. It’s actually more of a craft beer social democracy, based on small trades doing interesting things. It doesn’t necessarily need a sympathetic council, either – grassroots initiatives can often take control of retail spaces just as well. One of the most interesting examples in the UK is Tŷ Pawb, or Our House, in the north Wales town of Wrexham, which, since it voted Tory in 2019, has become part of the much-mythologised ex-industrial “red wall”. Large swathes of the place have been made bleak and straggling by chain retail malls and big roads, but in the town centre, a 1980s shopping mall that originally housed the town market has been transformed into a combination of art gallery, market and social space. Unlike the pop-up ventures that appeared in the 2010s, this is a permanent project, intended to make a lasting change in the town.

According to one activist from Wrexham, this transformation of a failed shopping centre into an arty new space has been successful with locals. “The arts stuff is popular with the relatively small sort of bohemian middle-class types around – but the food and market stuff is popular across the community.” As well as local artists, the activist notes that “a lot of the work behind it was actually done by a few people around Plaid Cymru”, rather than the council. The pub opposite, Saith Seren, is run along similar lines, as “a co-op, used for meetings, with local acts, and is purposefully bilingual – politically at the crossover of liberal and socialist Welsh nationalism”. One problem with these sorts of spaces, however, is the enormous amount of volunteer labour they involve.

Newcastle’s Star and Shadow cinema, a mile or so east of the city centre, has turned a disused carpet store into a popular social centre and cinema, beautifully decorated inside and out by local artists. But it relies on unpaid work, from the washing-up to the programming. Newcastle, notoriously, was forced to cut 100% of its arts funding in the 2010s; new cultural buildings round here used to be like the Baltic and Sage over the river in Gateshead – shiny, expensive and fully employed. Now they are anarchistic spaces carved out of old buildings, run by enthusiasts, like a sort of leftist version of David Cameron’s forgotten “big society”. Without proper funding or council backing, this is the form that many creative reuses of the gutted high streets will take.

That’s why the notion of community wealth building, rather than disconnected projects, is so important. In Scotland, this is now enshrined, to a degree at any rate, in legislation: the Scottish Community Empowerment Act of 2015 makes the transformation of dead high streets into successful social spaces much easier. Writing in the current issue of Red Pepper, the journalist Andrea Sandor cites the Midsteeple Quarter in the small border town of Dumfries as an example of the projects trying to take advantage of this. Some cities may be taking a similar approach. The Liverpool city region’s new land commission has been tasked with thinking up, in the words of metro mayor Steve Rotheram: “radical recommendations for how we can make the best use of publicly owned land to make this the fairest and most socially inclusive city region in the country”. Liverpool and the Wirral are ripe for this, with huge swathes of empty space and generations of failed retail developments.

While efforts are scattered and struggling, a different high street is entirely possible – but it involves councils, including Labour ones, finally abandoning their dreams of a giant John Lewis saving the day. It will also involve fighting a government whose solution for every urban problem is to turn it into an opportunity for property development.

• Owen Hatherley is an author and the culture editor of Tribune. His latest book is Red Metropolis: Socialism and the Government of London and previous books include A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain, Landscapes of Communism and The Ministry of Nostalgia

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