Beyond the Pandemic: The Future of our High Streets
The world post Covid-19 will be very different to the one we know. We must seize the opportunity to reaffirm our appreciation for the high street, as a focal point for our communities and accordingly support the small businesses that make our towns shine. Business Improvement Districts might be in the perfect position to spearhead this transition.
There’s no doubt the high street has not had it easy. It was squeezed by the rise of out-of-town shopping centres in the 70s, struggled through the recession of the 80s, was homogenized by globalization in the 90s before another recession hit in 2008.
The current pandemic is catalyzing a transformation and what we expected to take a decade, will unfold in the next few months.
Even before business closures were made mandatory, we saw a drastic end to footfall, tourists and events.
The high street is ill-prepared for such an attack. Before Covid-19, 60% of new ventures in the UK would fail within three years, 20% within 12 months. In addition to London’s eyewatering rents, business rates are disproportionately applied to physical stores and make competing with internet giants a thankless task. Whilst struggling to tread water, these SMEs are unlikely to have been accruing the extra skills and resources needed for adapting to changing environments, financial planning or moving online. Little wonder up to 1 million of them are expected to fold in the UK as a result of the virus lockdown.
IMPACT ON THE HIGH STREET
If we really value the contribution SMEs and independents make to the character and variety of our towns, we require a Government-backed small business charter. We have an opportunity to shift policy in favour of businesses instead of landlords, to allow them to flourish on high streets that are agile, competitive and multi-functional for the communities they serve.
Central Government’s financial support packages have been generally celebrated. But a survey of businesses in Euston and Camden Town shows a pattern of concerns:
- A rent deferral will leave vulnerable businesses with a 3-month bill, following a period of little to no income or activity.
- Businesses cannot know their cash flow into the next month never mind the next year, so applying for Government-backed loans is considered too high risk.
- Banks are suspected of unfairly refusing loans or applying unreasonable requirements despite recent government interventions.
- Businesses are concerned that measures will not be in place soon enough and will simply delay inevitable failure.
Grants of £10,000 or £25,000 are available to hospitality businesses with a rateable value of under £51,000, across the UK. This leaves just 9% of businesses outside of London ineligible for this lifeline — contrasted with the 24% who will be shut out of this opportunity, because they operate in a city where business rates are notoriously high.
Currently, there is a £51,000 cap for businesses applying to the grant scheme. This is applied to the whole of the UK and does not proportionately account for London’s higher business rates.
We are therefore asking the Government and Local Authority to:
- Grant businesses a rent holiday, rather than deferral
- Double the rateable value cap making businesses eligible for a grant, to £104,000.
- Resist landlords using permitted development rights to transform newly vacant units in to more lucrative residential, instead putting in the hands of trusted partners able to repurpose them for the use of small businesses that uplift the local economy.
- Provide 121 case workers for local businesses in accessing financial support and budgeting for the future
As civic spaces our high streets should be treasured as a social lifeline, where business is a part of the community. If we take the right action now, when we emerge from Covid-19 we will be able to reimagine these spaces as platforms for technical experimentation, networks of collaboration, testbeds for unique designs and hubs of culture.
These are exactly the themes we started exploring through Alternative Camden, an initiative designed to look forward to our future, where technology and creativity will be harnessed to build resilient and sustainable neighbourhoods, towns and cities.
REGENERATE & REMEDY
We are at a pivotal point to ensure that the pandemic leads to a shift in how civic space is used. The experience has unearthed a magical sense of community spirit and unity, which should lead us to demand more from the design and function of our high streets so that they truly reflect local demographics and character.
BIDs are uniquely placed to respond with urgency to the immediate needs of the business community whilst keeping one eye on leading a longer-term strategy building idealistic high streets, celebrating entrepreneurship and its connection to communities.
In CTU’s last BID term the team turned an income of £2.16 million in to £17.69 million worth of benefits; from baseline services such as saving businesses money and securing police resources, to upgrading the public realm and regenerating vacant buildings in to multi-purpose creative spaces.
Having this level of impact requires hyper-localised knowledge and networks, meaning activities can be customized and adapted as the environment dictates such as high vacany rates on the high street, or the highly disruptive construction of HS2. Our presence gives our members the freedom to focus on their day-to-day, and our coworking spaces give local SMEs the freedom to launch and experiment without prohibitive overheads. Meanwhile, we work with partners to develop neighbourhood plans, regenerate buildings, lobby and partner up on public realm redesign projects.
Back in 2009, CTU responded to the high street’s vacancy rates with Camden Collective, a charity set up to take on temporary leases, repurpose units for the use of small businesses as free retail, coworking, exhibition and event space. Popup shops were reporting up to 100 visitors a day, and this increase in footfall in turn benefitted surrounding businesses. The marketplace C159 hosted 100 different retailers in a year and introduced an experience destination to the high street. Suddenly a network of creative, energetic startups had spilled out into Camden Town. Young, like-minded people looking to collaborate, innovate and disrupt were making Camden Town their base.
The scheme was simple, but perhaps uniquely appropriate to CTU. Whilst the local authority would struggle with issues such as how to deal with business rates and using approved contractors, we were able to shoulder costs our board agreed to and be fleet of foot as opportunities arose. As we primed the local market as the place for startups to do business, CTU’s position as a delivery vehicle for genuine regeneration was established.
PLANNING FOR THE FUTURE
CTU and Euston Town have long been musing over the future of our towns and how we can create fairer societies and uplift our independent businesses. We’ve been exploring what automation means for the local economy, how data collection should benefit communities, what ‘shareable’ civic space looks like in practice, and how to empower communities to make their own climate change response. So, whilst we dedicate our energies to ensuring businesses pull through the crisis, our initiative Alternative Camden is exploring the projects that will shape the recovery of our neighbourhoods, creating fairer and more resilient high streets.
Camden Collective is an exciting remedy for the inevitable increase in vacant units, and its model could spearhead a movement that fills builds with collaborative, committed SMEs who contribute to the local economy, push boundaries and disrupt markets. Collective’s current workspace at Auction Rooms on Buck Street is home to 260 members, has introduced 19 new subsidized offices to the town centre and given 157 businesses a supportive and affordable environment to start off in. A future with many more Collectives across Camden Town is a very bright one.
Soon, local people will be able to get back involved with our mission to install a park in the sky, the Camden Highline — 1,500 people having already taken a walking tour of the project which has been supported by over a thousand individual donations. The initiative represents an innovative approach to how we re-purpose disused public space and put connectivity of communities at the forefront of our neighbourhood design.
Euston Town will be consulting on the redesign of Drummond Street, building on a neighbourhood vision which has been devised in collaboration with every corner of local communities, institutions and businesses. We’ll explore how to elevate this collection of family-run restaurants in to a culinary destination, creating a shareable public realm that’s co-designed through new democratic processes. Based on research of other projects we believe this initiative could lead to a 20% increase in footfall, and community events on a new ‘people’s high street’ could generate £30-£60,000 in revenue.
All these projects will take off again soon. We don’t know how soon, but an end to this period is on the horizon. Camden Town Unlimited & Euston Town are ready and perfectly placed to turn our current challenges in to future opportunities and get experimenting.