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27-02-2013

RETAILERS have deserted our failing high streets and, if they are to survive, it’s time for people to move in. Derelict shops could be turned into residential properties under radical new Government proposals.

Flats would be flanked by a new breed of niche shops creating a village atmosphere from the rows of boarded-up buildings and windows that form the sad parades of shopping streets we see now.

High streets as we know them have been obliterated by them have been obliterated by the unstoppable rise in internet shopping and proliferation of super-markets into fields such as clothing, furniture and entertainment. In the past 10 days alone, major retail chains, including big names such as TJ Hughes, Habitat and Jan Norman, have gone into administration.

In its desperation the Government has turned to celebrity shop-fixer Mary Portas to save out high streets, with a report due in the autumn. Yet the solution to boarded-up Britain is not to claw back the outmoded model of yesteryear but to adapt to new ways of shopping, according to the president of insolvency trade body R3, Frances Coulson.

You can’t be like King Canute and expect things to stay the same, said the business recovery specialist, “Empty shops put people off. The high street is full of services, such as Starbucks, but they need football.

“More residential use would drive local demand and make high streets a little more village like.”

Not only would such a plan rejuvenate rundown areas, it would also protect green land from residential development, she argued.

Politicians are thinking along the same lines. Tony MP Bob Neill, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, recently revealed that the Coalition is consulting on planning changes that would allow empty commercial premises to be converted into residential use. Yet to design the high street of the future it is important to understand what has gone wrong with the traditional model. Britons are now more time poor and the nostalgic ideal of filling a wicker basket with fresh goods on a daily visit to a butcher, baker and grocer is no longer a reality.

Today’s consumers are likely to shop online on a smart-phone or at their desk in their lunch break. Internet sales have grown by 6,600 per cent since April 2000, says e-commerce trade body IMRG.

Over the past 11 years Britons have spent an estimated £300billion shopping on the internet, rising from a year total of £800million in 2000 to an estimated £58.8billion in 2010.

Such trends are the real cause of retail failures, according to Christine Elliott of the Institute for Turnaround. She said retailers have used the recession as an excuse.

“”Companies collapsed because they had not done enough about the causes of decline. There is a change on the high street that’s gone on for a long while. There is a need for fewer outlets, also a shift to the internet.

“Supermarkets have done well because they’ve innovated and offer value for money.”

DESPITE this, businesses that offer a niche do have a place in the high street if the future, she adds, such as late-opening shops. A look at the past fortnight’s retail administrations paints a picture of the types of businesses that no longer belong in the high street. They failed to adapt. A key area is the move away from town centre shopping to out-to-town retail parks, said Tom MacLennan, head of recovery at accountants RSM Tenon.

He said: “Habitat has not moved with the times. Why would you have a furnishing store on the high street where you can’t park? It should have moved out of town. If people are the same business they were 10 years ago, they’ve been left standing.”

Critics of Thorntons, which plans to close 170 stores, say that it spread itself too thinly and that its super-market sales ate into the performance of its own stores nearby.

MacLennan said: “If you think you’re a premium brand and start selling in supermarkets, you diminishing the perception of you brand.”

So, which types of shops do have a future on the high street? Retailers who have done well have embraced the flight to the internet, says IMRG managing director David Smith.

An example of a company that has spotted this opportunity is Collect-plus a network of 3,500 lat-opening corner shops that act as collection points for online shopping.

If retailers and town planners take heed, a trip to the high street of the future will not involve a struggle with a parking meter and a grim parade of pound shops.

Imagine picking up your latest Amazon delivery from a newsagent, followed by a quick latte in a café. We are set for a high street where ex-bedding departments are bedrooms and ex-Habitat stores are habitats.

BUT AT LEAST SOMEWHERE’S POPULAR

Bondgate Within, in Alnwick, Northumberland, is booming again after being named ­Britain’s best shopping street.

The street gained the honour as part of the 2011 Google Street View awards.

It beat off competition from 19 other streets, including London’s Kingston Market Place, Low Pavement in Nottingham and Lisburn Road in Belfast.

“The award is simply down to all the independent shops that have managed to survive on Bondgate Within,” said Janette Smith, 45, who owns independent sportswear shop Scotts of ­Alnwick. “We offer people something different to what they can buy when they visit the big chain shops or supermarkets.

The Google award trophy sits proudly in the window of Scotts, its huge frame appropriate for a town bursting with giant ­personality and history.

Kerry Grant, 41, a biomedical scientist, on a visit from Bristol, said: “You get everything you want on one street.”

Scattered alongside the more recognisable names of Boots, Dorothy Perkins and WHSmith, the independent and family-owned shops on Bondgate provide the true heart of the town. Their warmth and tradition have been preserved despite the inevitable loss in sales brought on by the recession. Ray ­Johnson, 62, owner of Ray’s Menswear, said: “The street has maintained its tradition of small, independent shops offering you something you can’t get anywhere else. It’s something the big chains could learn from.”

The town was thrust into the spotlight after Alnwick Castle, which dates back to 1096, was used as JK Rowling’s ­Hogwart’s school in the Harry Potter films.

Tourists visiting the town are finding even more reasons to come back. “It is Britain’s best kept secret,” said Dianne Taylor, 55, a retired dance teacher from Tarlton, Lancs.

TESTIMONIALS

Standout firm known for its personal insolvency work for clients including private companies, individuals and governmental institutions. Frequently acts for insolvency practitioners, assisting with the realisation of assets, both in the UK and abroad.

Chambers and Partners

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