Why do we keep building more shops?

The one consistent message we are getting from those people who spend their lives predicting what will happen is that the decline of the High Street is well underway. The evidence is there for us to see- over the past five years plenty of well-known big chains have closed or been through an administration process that has left them a shadow of their former selves. At the same time, with far fewer headlines, a lot of specialist and local businesses have also disappeared. There is probably no high street in the country without a number of vacant units. The question then has to be- why are people still creating new shop units?

To take the example of my city centre; a large hotel recently opened with space on its ground floor for six new shop units. Yet a similar number across the road have remained unfilled since they were built five years ago. A large shop purpose built for Zavvi has never been filled since that business closed. There is currently a large project involving a former department store whose ground floor is to be broken up into- you guessed it- more shop units. An even larger project plans to construct dozens more shops. It is doubtful whether many of these units will be filled so why do people keep constructing them?

Builders and planners need to start considering what is going to occupy high streets and city centres in the future. Whichever way you look at it, there will not be the need for as many shop units from now on unless Tesco, Home Bargains and Costa decide to have a unit every three or four shops (I suppose you can’t rule that out!). The reasons for the decline of shops are multifold- increased use of online shopping, cheaper supermarket brands, the ongoing austerity- but the result is always the same. Empty shops. There is some scope for more food shops as the number of people living in city centres increases but there are not that many food chains left apart from the big five supermarkets.

A typical 2013 high street
 It would be better if planners considered landscaping. The tradition of high streets that has grown up is of endless rows of shops whereas think how much more pleasant it would be to have landscaped areas every so often. Of course, we would need to tackle the British obsession with vandalising public places but it could be a way forward. High streets would gain an aesthetic as well as functional purpose plus more trees and plants would only help the environment. The well meaning idea of Mary Portas and others to fill these units with charities and community hubs rather ignores the way people live these days. If people are too busy to actually shop, they are hardly likely to have time to spend hanging about at a bake sale.

Predictions and science fiction of the past often painted the future as super crowded, needing monorails towering over the pavements because of the volume of people and the huge number of shops. It would be sensible now for us to consider the opposite; that city centres and high streets will become less frenetic and yet more appealing places to visit.

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