How will London’s High Streets change and grow?

by Dave Hill

It is easy to take London’s High Streets for granted: there they are, just round the corner, providing bread, milk and bus stops. They never go away. But their constancy can give rise to complacency: a failure to appreciate the breadth and depth of what they give us and a resulting risk of losing it.

A new report for the Mayor of London has sought to highlight and evaluate the good stuff High Streets do and point the way to preserving and improving it. Primarily the work of LSE Cities and the architecture and urbanism practice We Made That, the 60-odd page document, called High Streets For All, will feed into Mayor Khan’s forthcoming version of the London Plan, the capital’s master spatial development document, with its objective of creating “a city for all Londoners”.

What is a High Street, actually? The report says there are some 600 of them across Greater London, roughly one for each square mile. It focuses on three very different examples: Burnt Oak’s in suburban Barnet; Lewisham High Street, which is the town centre variety; and, to my delight, Lower Clapton Road in Hackney, which I have walked down some or all of pretty much every day since moving to a street that lies just off it in 1992. I hadn’t really thought of it as a High Street before. Officially it isn’t. But it does much of what a High Street ought to, and does it well.

The trio selected for close attention demonstrate the diversity of London High Streets and also the diversity within them: of shops and amenities they contain; of uses people make of them; of forms of benefit they supply. The researchers’ aims principally included identifying the value of High Streets to Londoners, the changes that face High Streets and their implications, and how High Streets can evolve to embrace a still wider range of people than they do already.

They came up with ten key findings and ten recommendations. The former illuminate how High Streets are social as well as economic places, offering newcomers, people without day jobs, the young and the old friendship, help and facilities they need as well as shops, employment and small business premises. The latter urge “good growth” principles to be applied to High Street change by fully recognising the strengths, functions and local distinctiveness of High Streets, protecting these and enhancing them.

Presenting the report at LSE last night, Holly Lewis from We Made That, other contributors and members of the audience picked through relevant threads of that big theme of contemporary London, finding the right combinations of continuity and change and getting them put into effect. High Streets are under the same sorts of property pressures that housing is, as London’s population expands, demographics shift, and development and gentrification create winners, losers, curses and blessings.

Lewis feels the “messiness” of High Streets, the cornucopia of owners and consumers they comprise, can help them survive the threat of sterilisation by colonising chains. An episode from recent Lower Clapton Road history bears this out. In 2010, a branch of Tesco Express opened, stirring the local corner shop and local Guardian readers to protest. There were dire predictions: the invading giant would “suck the life” out of its independent rivals and the street as a whole. It never happened: the corner shop, featured in High Streets For All, has gone from strength to strength, nourished by insurgent middle-class tastes. Tesco, meanwhile, caters to a more mainstream, less affluent, clientele.

More recent years have seen an influx of what we’ll crudely stereotype as hipster outlets, from a vinyl record store, to a craft beer bar, to laptop cafés. A pair of pizza takeouts, just a few doors apart, reflect an ever shifting landscape of incomes and appetites: one, an independent, is all bicycles and beards; the other, a franchise, is more familial and BAME. Just round the corner from the end of the street, an artisanal bread shop profits from the sorts of people who dislike gentrification. I might write a sitcom.

There is a lot of churn, but also some exceptional survivors who’ve been around even longer than me. The fish and chip shop and the Chinese takeaway are perennial, unchanging and much loved. The two launderettes are in differing states of transition, the dry cleaner has gone green and the local lad who was a classmate of one of my sons has reinvented the family kebab shop and egg-and-chip cafe for what he calls “the new Clapton”. Swings and roundabouts, energy and enterprise, longevity and renewal – it’s all there. Anywhere else would be dull.

Read High Streets For All here.

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