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queen of shops

There is no denying it, Britain’s high streets have long been in a state of decline.  According to Labour’s manifesto on revitalising high streets, there are now 3,710 fewer fruit and veg shops, butchers, and newsagents than there were in 2010. 

Labour say that since 2022, an additional 385 towns have seen their last bank branch either close, or announce that they will be closing imminently, leaving whole communities without local banking facilities.  Add to this an increase in antisocial behaviour on the streets and shoplifting up by more than 30% in a single year - It’s no wonder that our high streets are really struggling.  Something needs to be done. 


With creativity, collaborations and events, high streets can be amazing places, full of exciting spaces including independent shops, cafes, restaurants, bars and salons. 


Portas and the Plan for Beautiful Business  

Will Labour have the answers? They have a “5 point plan to breathe life into Britain’s high streets” but will they deliver? More importantly, will Queen of Shops’ Mary Portas be by their side? Mary has recently joined the Labour Party and was seen out on the campaign trail with Rachel Reeves, Labour Shadow Chancellor in Aldershot. 

In her own 5-point plan for ‘Beautiful Business’ on Instagram Portas shares her passion for High Street revitalisation …

“There has never been a time where we’ve needed (High Streets)  more. Post the heightened consumerism of the last 20 years, and post-covid where so many of us realised how vital they are to our wellbeing, our daily interactions, and sense of self, safety and place. I’m not talking highstreets as filled with as much retail as before. Those days are over. But I am talking how to harness innovation, ideas, and collaboration from not only politicians but communities to kick start a whole new ecosystem fit for the new time we’re now living in.” 

Video link to Insta? Mary Portas and Rachel Reeves chatting to retailers in Aldershot?

Retailers look forward to a Labour Administration but say there is work to do 

The SiGNAL team also took to the streets this week and chatted to local retailers including those running independent boutiques, off licences, hair salons and book shops.  We asked them what needs to happen to improve our High Streets and how they feel about the new Labour government. Is there room for a Portas style revamp of High Streets at Government level? 

Common themes were evident. All said they would start by providing plentiful free, or cheap, parking as parking hassle is simply a turn off when it comes to shopping on high streets. When considering the competition with the ‘online giants’ it’s a distinct advantage that you don’t have to queue or pay to park at Amazon! 

The battle with chain stores was raised by many as it’s almost impossible to compete with them on price, so finding compelling points of difference, whether product or service related, were critical. The rising cost of business was cited as a major factor in business failure. Sylvia, the owner of Blue Bear Bookshop in Farnham, reported that the town has lost a fishmongers, a florist and a hair salon just in the past few weeks and, sadly, she is also about to relocate out of the town due to rising costs.

Business owners in Midhurst and Farnham highlighted recent roadworks and closures which have had a dire impact on footfall.  Anna, owner of Rainbow Roar in Farnham, described the roadworks and increased parking costs as barriers for shoppers, making online options more appealing to them.  She feels that the pressure is always on retailers to get people onto the high streets by offering sales and discounts when in fact there is plenty the town council and central government could be doing. Anna feels there is room for the new administration to encourage new retailers to the High Street by offering incentives. A shake up in business rates will be very welcome but more of an incentive package is needed to really make a difference.

On a positive note, almost everyone we spoke to was loving the trend for pavement style cafes and street entertainment which give high streets vibrancy, bringing them to life for customers who expect an experience from high street shopping that cannot be recreated online. Retailers said that more collaboration between independent businesses and the local council would be beneficial in enhancing these boulevard spaces, creating atmosphere outside, as well as within, their stores.

Almost everyone we spoke to is looking forward to seeing what Labour will do next for the High Street and there was a lot of love for Mary Portas too!

Diversity is key

The more diverse the range and scope of businesses we can encourage onto the high streets, the better. We’re not just talking retail, as Mary Portas says, but workspace, performance and sport too.   Farnham and Bordon are already embracing this concept.  Peter Glanville is CEO at The Farnham Maltings which has operated as an arts and cultural centre there for the past 50 years, presenting a programme of performance, craft showcases and participation work which hugely contributes to the town’s quality of life. 

Peter believes that arts and culture can have a huge impact on how we revitalise the high street and can play a major role in supporting the retail industry.  The arts can have a meaningful impact on people’s lives, improving mental health, decreasing loneliness and offering access to shared experiences.  In turn these opportunities provide commercial benefits to the high street and town as a whole. The Maltings regularly organises and hosts large events such as Unravel, a festival of yarn, as well as monthly markets of all flavours and a Christmas market.  All of these events attract 1000s of visitors to the town centre to enjoy the shops and cafes.  In addition, The Maltings organises many creative arts performances throughout the town which breathe life into the high street and the environs.  

Peter thinks that pop-up shops work well on high streets and should be encouraged.  He believes they keep the spirit of towns and high streets alive, providing an excellent opportunity for artists to showcase their work at affordable prices and refreshing the experience for customers, it’s a win win as every pop-up shop that is filled with creativity is one less dreary, empty space.

The Work Near Home Revolution 

Pubs and cafes on the high street are becoming more innovative and accepting of those who want to work remotely from their space, targeting freelancers, entrepreneurs and those who might once have been commuters, working in large towns and cities far from home.  Chiddingfold’s The Swan Inn, for example, offers a “Pastry and a Plug” deal. This shift in approach from the F&B industry will quickly entice people out of their homes and into local shops and businesses.

Workspace hubs based in towns, near shops and eateries are great for attracting local people too and they can offer a healthier working environment.  Workspace hubs tend to be family and dog friendly so people can opt to work in an office space near home and combine this with a lunchtime dog walk and picking the kids up from school on foot after work, perhaps via a mooch along the high street. It’s all about finding and offering that work life balance and keeping it local definitely helps with this.   

A Town Centre for the Future 

In nearby Whitehill and Bordon a new kind of town centre has been designed and built as part of the regeneration programme. The Shed was the first new town centre building to be completed in Bordon in 2021 and it offers a fabulously diverse mix of bars, restaurants, retail, a theatre and a SiGNAL offering 13 individual offices on the first floor, looking down on all the family focused activity below. The mix of workspace and playspace, nighttime and daytime entertainment is a real blueprint for the future of High Streets.

Watch this space …

It is clear that retailers and business owners are keen to see changes and there are plenty of ideas out there but will the new government listen?  Labour’s whole campaign has been based on change, will we see it on the high street?