Highstreet to Heaven

How the Government’s funding initiatives for the high street are a unique opportunity for councils to innovate

In recent years, the high street has been in crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic has only thrown this into sharper relief.  The government recognises that for society to function, it needs the glue that holds communities together and the high street is a big part of that.

Its actions support that. It is investing significant money, approaching £1bn, with local councils to support the high street. Several different funds have been launched including ‘Future High Streets’ and the snappily titled ‘Reopening High Streets Safely’ initiative. 

The positive message to take from this is that the death of the high streets is not inevitable and the figures bear this out. In 2019, 75% of consumer spending happened offline. This figure was still 65% during the height of the pandemic when most shops were shut and everyone was confined to their homes. That’s still over two-thirds of consumer spending. The reality is that people enjoy the shopping experience.

So the high street isn’t dead, it’s just broken. And this presents a great opportunity for innovative schemes and initiatives that revive and genuinely support the high street ecosystem. 

An opportunity

Whether it’s fair or not, the public sector still has a reputation for being slow, sleepy and bureaucratic, and local councils definitely get tarred with this brush. There are examples to the contrary with initiatives like the Behavioural Insights team, InnovateUK, and instances of councils driving bold initiatives on things like green energy, sustainability or education. But these still feel like the exception.

So what are the barriers? They’re not that different from the things keeping private sector organisations from innovating. They include perceived risk, the fear of getting it ‘wrong’ (and blame when it does go wrong) not having the right skills, mindsets or processes in place, and a big one for the public sector, funding. 

But right now, with these funds, that barrier isn’t there and councils have an opportunity to make some bold moves and genuinely innovate for growth.

So where do you start?

This is exactly the kind of challenge &us love to get stuck into – complex problems that require a toolkit of approaches to unpack and play with, to get to the heart of the problem. We also think that it’s the perfect opportunity for councils to really get to grips with innovating.

Reframe the question: 

This funding is not about providing direct support to retailers, instead, it is about creating the fertile conditions in which diverse and interesting high streets can thrive and this offers a great opportunity to look at the challenge from different angles and get to the heart of the issue, and the variety of ways it can be addressed. Is this a street furniture and signage issue, decluttering the space? Or is it one of the taxation policy, where councils need to get creative about business rates pricing and revenue? Or is it about relaxing planning rules to allow premises change of use and outdoor seating, or supporting events to drive footfall? Or a combination of these?

Get ready to fail (but just a bit)

Nothing new comes without risk, and so the key here is to change your approach to mitigate and minimise risk, you do this by essentially front-loading failures. By working in an agile, iterative way, allows you to find out where you’re wrong before it matters too much. This way you learn cheap and learn fast, and maximise your chances of success.

Accept that there isn’t an ‘answer’

Stockport council is using its fund allocation to demolish its brutalist shopping centre to make way for green open spaces, interspersed with retail. It isn’t without risk of course and on paper, it should be transformative for the city, but this does not make it a blueprint for other places to copy. Sometimes a bold initiative is an answer, sometimes a few small and simple changes can make all the difference. What really matters is how Stockport came to this decision, how well it was thought through and how they stress tested it.

Innovation is challenging, no doubt about it (or everyone would do it), but with the right approach, it can be transformative. And with the funding on offer, councils have a golden opportunity.

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