28.10.19

The future of our high streets

Source: PSE: Oct/Nov 19

 

Dr Anna Dixon, the chief executive of Centre for Ageing Better, explains why the Future High Streets Fund is a vital opportunity to rebuild our town centres for everyone.

Over the summer, the Government announced a raft of towns and cities set to benefit from the Future High Streets Fund, launched last year by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. The £1bn fund aims to help places transform their high streets to meet modern challenges.

This transformation is badly needed after the beating many of our once-vibrant town centres have taken over the past few decades. The combination of online shopping, rising rents and business rates, as well as pressure on consumer spending have left high streets across the UK struggling. Empty shop fronts, payday lenders, betting shops, charity shops and discount stores have replaced the general stores, department stores and post offices we would have seen a few years ago.

We’re all affected by the changing face of our town centres. But people in later life are most at risk of being left behind when retailers close their doors, retreat into the city centres, move online or shut up shop altogether, leaving people without the shops they need within walking distance. Factors such as a lack of access to digital services, greater distrust of online banking and shopping, and mobility and sight issues are all more likely to affect older people – meaning many struggle to access the shops and services they need.

With more people living for longer, and England’s towns set to see a big increase in their older populations, it’s crucial that efforts to rejuvenate our high streets have the needs of older people right at their heart. But the kinds of initiatives needed to truly future-proof our towns and cities will benefit us all.

Take housing. At the same time as more and more high street units are being boarded up and left empty, we’re facing a serious housing crisis. In particular, there is a real shortage of suitable homes for people who want to keep living in town centres in later life. Sometimes simple solutions are the best: rather than leaving our high streets to become ghost towns, some of these empty spaces could become great places to live, meeting demand for new homes while breathing new life into our town centres.

For this to work, we need much stronger rules around converted properties, especially those built under permitted development rights which currently don’t have to meet the standards for quality, space or accessibility that apply to other new homes. But if regulations were strengthened to ensure all new homes are high quality, accessible and adaptable, we could begin to see vibrant, multigenerational living spaces in the communities where people want to live.

Redevelopment plans must not simply replace high streets with residential roads, but retain a mix of shops and housing. This would be revolutionary not only for many older residents, but also for local businesses: being able to easily access shops in their local area would mean those people are able to spend more in their communities.

For bigger retailers too, finding ways of reaching older people who are less digitally connected could seriously boost profits while making a real difference to the lives of people who have become increasingly locked out of using the shops and services they want. One innovative solution is the ‘high street showroom’, where people can view products before ordering them in-store. This could help bridge the digital divide for people without access to online shopping, while allowing retailers to retain the cost-efficiency of large out-of-town warehouses.

The rapid changes we’re seeing to local economies and the way we shop don’t have to mean the end of our high streets. With the right investment, and good ideas, we could see them transformed into bustling local communities where people of all ages live, work and shop all in one place. But if our town centres are to be truly fit for the future, they must be age-friendly. As the towns draw up their plans, it’s vital they build in walkability, accessibility and the needs of older people from day one.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Tw: @Ageing_Better

W: www.ageing-better.org.uk

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