A popular for shopping and dining walking High Street in Inverness historical city centre, Scotland, October 2017

Britain’s high streets are facing significant hurdles. Not only have they had the rise of the internet and the pandemic to deal with, but they also find themselves caught up in the Government’s levelling up agenda. Redwood’s Tom Gibson and Poppy Eccles look at how the high street features in politicians’ promises at both national and local levels as we look towards 2024 and likely political changes ahead.

As highlighted by UK Onward analysis, 14.4% of high street units in the UK are currently vacant – roughly double the average vacancy rate of 7 – 8% reported in the years immediately preceding 2008’s financial crisis. Much commentary has labelled the COVID-19 pandemic, and the associated public health restrictions, the felling axe for the UK’s regional high streets. This is a challenge facing the whole country, from rural market towns to London’s totemic high street – the 1.2-mile-long Oxford Street.

Empty shops are, as Michael Gove told the Telegraph, like “missing teeth in the smile of an old friend. You only need one or two for the whole thing to be ruined.”

The health of the nation’s high streets is on the main political parties’ radar and, while it seems unlikely to become a major General Election issue, it seems to be integral to Labour and the Conservatives’ levelling up ‘pitch’ to the electorate.

As the party in power, the Tories have a more detailed approach, as set out through the recently announced ‘Long Term Plan for Towns’. Its importance to the Government as part of the levelling up agenda is evidenced by the fact that:

  • DLUHC has now allocated funding based on internal decision making, rather than bids from local authorities.
  • The majority of funding for towns aiming at northern, Scottish and Welsh regional towns.

Interestingly, the Government bypasses councils in getting the money where it is needed. When funding has been allocated, Gove has handed funding to neighbourhood forums, civic society organisations, and business groups via Town Boards. These boards will work with but not underneath local authorities, with the funding provided being used – as DLHUC makes clear – to “ensure that local people, not just politicians, drive change”.

The Secretary of State also believes that getting people involved in their future high streets is a part of the answer. Influenced by think tanks popular with the Parliamentary Conservative Party, and the younger activist base, such as Create Streets or the Policy Exchange-backed ‘Street Votes’ proposals, Gove has vowed to translate principles of ‘gentle density’ and true mixed-use neighbourhoods into the nation’s high street – clearly influenced by concerns that some high streets have become monocultures of retail and leisure.

The Government’s reform of permitted development rights is designed to allow the easier transformation of retail units into residential accommodation. Arguing that many of the UK’s urban centres have seen reduced development because they are “less buzzy”, this policy aims to bring people into the high street whilst “maximis(ing) the potential of existing buildings for new homes”. In sum, existing retailers will benefit from additional footfall from people living above them – rather than relying on commuting consumers.

Labour set out its policy ambitions earlier this year through its five-point-plan for high streets. The highlight is its undertaking to cut business rates. The party also appears to have more faith in local authorities. Although the announcement lacks detail, Keir Starmer announced at the recent Labour Party conference announced that a Labour Government would give new powers and funding for all of England’s towns and cities to boost local economies. The Party also sees a role for councils in bringing empty shops on their high streets back into use.

It is also telling that high streets increasingly feature in local election campaigning. It is rarely at the forefront of an election campaign but often politicians’ support for a struggling high street – or perhaps celebrating local successes – pictorially demonstrate ‘community engagement’ in campaign leaflets from all three main parties.

So, as they gear up for the General Election, parties’ views on the high street are starting to take shape – not a headline issue but an integral part of the levelling up agenda, depending on which party you belong to, something that local authorities can drive, or one on which community groups must take the lead.