As more major brands go into liquidation it feels like the life is being sucked out of our high streets. HMV and Blockbusters are just the latest in a long line of casualties. It is clear that some radical changes will need to be made if our high streets are to survive.
The Government is keen to do what it can and the Future High Streets Forum launched by Local Growth Minister Mark Prisk earlier this month sets out to advise businesses on how to adapt to the changing behaviour of consumers.
One of the key areas the forum will investigate is parking. Providing good access is fundamental but incredibly there has so far been no mention of buses, in spite of the fact that more people access the high street by bus than by any other mode – 40% of shoppers access the high street by bus, compared with just 30% by car.
A major omission
This is a major omission, repeating the earlier omission made in the Portas Review, on which this current initiative builds. Rather than looking at delivering more viable and sustainable access to high streets, the Portas Review promoted free controlled parking schemes, and even suggested a parking league table.
Mary Portas spoke of empowering Business Investment Districts to take on more powers and become Super-BIDs, but she failed to mention that buses provide crucial access to leisure and retail and that these bodies should therefore be encouraged to invest in good public transport.
Putting town centres first
“Town centre first” planning principles is a key priority for the Future High Streets Forum. This is an important and laudable principle, but it is only half the picture. Sustainable transport must also be a mandatory requirement for all new developments if access is to be assured and we are to avoid grid-lock on our roads.
Poor transport is one of the main contributors to negative experiences of urban streets and public places. An Ipsos Mori survey reveals that 9 out of 10 people say that road traffic affects their quality of life. Conversely the positive impact of urban quality improvements on economic activity can be highly significant. A major study by Tim Whitehead, David Simmonds and John Preston has shown that retail footfall can be increased by 20 to 40% and retail turnover by as much as 25%
Another missed opportunity
So once again it appears that buses have been over-looked, in spite of the crucial access they provide. A quarter of households have no access to a car, and buses have a vital role to play in making our towns and cities less congested and more pleasant places to live.
Creating the conditions for economic growth is another key Government priority and yet policy makers continue to overlook that fact that buses are a key facilitator of retail and leisure spend. People use the bus to making shopping and leisure trips to a value of £27 billion a year, £22 billion of which is spent in our towns and city centres.
This presents a missed opportunity, which is a pity as the Future High Streets Forum is an otherwise timely and worthwhile initiative.
Photo by Martin Pettitt.