Back in the long, hot summer of 2018, when Futureville lost the Edwardian-era department store that had been the flagship of its typically British high street for decades, things looked bleak. Several big chain stores had already closed. Online retailing was draining the lifeblood from many that remained. Discount shops, charity shops and boarded-up stores seemed the only ones that were multiplying.
A dozen years later, Futureville is bustling again. The town dwellers — and many live on the high street once more — stroll from new apartments to modern co-working spaces, the micro-cinema and craft brewery, the gym and wellness centre, and varied attractions that make up the high street of 2030. In 2018, many said it could not be done.
The local council proved them wrong. It hired a town manager who put together an imaginative and entrepreneurial team to rethink the main street. With the UK estimated even then to have up to 40 per cent too much retail space, they knew many shops were never coming back. Their mission was to turn the town centre into a modern take on the more diverse environment it had once been — before retailing expanded to squeeze out almost everything else.
They had two guiding principles. The high street had to offer a mixture of retailing, entertainment, culture and wellbeing. It had to focus on physical services, experiences, and social interactions that the internet, even with advances in virtual reality, could not provide. Like most British towns, Futureville had a severe housing shortage. With little greenbelt land available, turning some vacant town centre space into housing made sense.
The local authority used its powers to borrow cheaply and compulsorily purchase the old department store building. In partnership with a developer, it turned the ground floor into a space for cafés and street food, and the rest into apartments and a roof garden. Some residential space was designed specially for retirees, who now feel less isolated living by the amenities and rub along happily with younger residents.
There is still retail, but less. Some stores are geared to convenience — items locals need immediately. Others focus on the customer experience. A couple of book lovers, and a wine enthusiast, opened shops where staff pride themselves on having personal recommendations for anyone. Two online clothing retailers opened showrooms where shoppers can consult stylists, pick up items bought online and try them on, and get them altered by on-site tailors. The need for shops to hold and manage lots of stock has gone.
The resulting decline of big-van deliveries has reduced traffic, pollution and noise, and made the high street a more pleasant place to live. So has the shift to electric and driverless shared cars. The ugly, 1970s multistorey car park has been demolished to make way for an all-weather tennis centre.
Central government helped too. It rewrote restrictive planning rules to make change of use easier. Its comprehensive 2020 reform of the outdated business rates system was a turning point. A new retail tax ensured all retailers — including big multinational online sellers — contributed fairly to financing urban regeneration.
Futureville 2030 is, of course, a fiction. Some might call it fanciful. It is, however, not an implausible vision. Towns in Britain — and elsewhere — are already trying elements of it. Achieving anything like it will require creative thinking by businesses and government; it cannot be left entirely to the market. But, even as ever more retail chains close, there is no reason high streets have to become ghost towns.