It has become a familiar experience for us all, you visit a town that was once a thriving place once with all the well know high street chains and a few independents in the mix only to be met by a high percentage of empty shops; some having been replaced by charity shops. It is a depressing prospect and certainly not the vision any of us had for the future of our high streets. There is no doubt that it is a challenging time for our high streets and the last 12 months the most traumatic for many well-known high street brands; but the businesses unable to survive have simply not evolved and have lost loyal customers over a period of time. Food and beverage became the short-term solution with coffee shops and restaurant chains filling the voids, this has now become unsustainable with many more recent big name casualties. Interventions from a planning perspective will be required going forward as many of these larger units will not easily be occupied, therefore it has never been more important for towns to have a clear place brand strategy.

Experts reporting on our declining high streets all agree footfall, sales and dwell time can be achieved by diverse town centres ensuring the right product and experience is available to consumers. How exactly do we achieve this?


In our opinion one of the reports that stands out for its no-nonsense approach and clarity was written by retail expert Mary Portas. In 2011 she was robust and stated that the out-of-town shopping explosion and super market expansion alongside the new era of internet shopping and poor local communication between councils, businesses and landlords had concluded in sacrificing our communities for convenience. Mary was right and this became our experience and the start of an interesting journey and innovative project delivery in Ashford, Kent.

Ashford Council was forward thinking to employ a retail specialist successfully engaging with local businesses and stakeholders including Marks & Spencer and Debenhams. In 2013 – the traditional high street that had been successful for decades underpinned by chains and well-known brands was already changing and this evolution will continue to make our towns unrecognisable in the next decade. It is how we respond to these radical changes that will set towns apart. Interventions from central government, local councils and the retail industry to support this evolution is required. With all the hysteria currently surrounding our high streets it is worth noting the retailers that are struggling to adapt to the changing landscape will be failing for a host of different reasons and there are many retailer and town success stories that are often not publicised.


Ashford, a market town in Kent is one of the high streets that has managed to turnaround the decline and reinvent itself with a clear strategy transforming an 18.9% vacancy rate in 2013 to an impressive 7.9% in December 2017. In part this was due to building on the legacy of the original Portas Pilot projects and the ability to adapt and respond to the changing landscape over a period of 4 years – it takes time, experience and energy to make a positive change. In July 2015 Ashford Borough Council purchased Park Mall Shopping Centre and devised a strategy to create an independent led shopping centre, complimenting the offer.  This centre had been on a steady decline since 2008 and was one-third empty, most of these units had remained empty for eight years. It is clear that the strategy delivered supported the wider town centre and overall offer, an eclectic mix of independent retailers nestled amongst high street names enhancing the customer experience across the entire town. Isn’t this a story worth reporting on, we think so?

Back in 2014 Mary Portas produced a report ‘Why our high streets still matter’ summarising her observations regarding the Portas Pilot towns, highlighting subjects we’re all still talking about in 2018, including digital transformation and the need for all retailers to evolve to survive with the support of councils, landlords and stakeholders. Mary concluded with an insightful summary of case studies to convey to other towns exactly what the Portas Pilots taught us. Mary didn’t have a say in who the Pilots were or how the programme was implemented, but she did have a clear vision for our towns and interest in what they achieved –  this wealth of information created would go on to be useful for the DCLG and ATCM.

Ashford was one of the successful case studies within the report and Mary quoted directly from Ashford’s strategy, as the projects delivered were able to be built on between 2014 and 2017 with renewed impetus. Sadly many success stories from Portas towns got very little airtime or coverage and this vital work along with other successes up and down the country should be celebrated and deserve the recognition to inspire other towns to take action. In our experience the Portas Pilot was a catalyst to allow towns to engage with the community and deliver relevent projects offering advise for other towns, so essentially a success story.

we're openPeople across the UK will resonate with the rapid rate in which our high streets are changing and it has never been more important for our places to be reimagined for our communities who will continue to use these spaces to work, live, shop and play for years to come. High streets will continue to evolve – yes they will be unrecognisable but with vision they can be great again.

In the next blog in this series we will explore the vital part councils, high street and shopping centre landlords have to play to assist towns, supporting the transition and future of our high streets.

We’d love to hear your views on the future of our high streets so please comment below. You can visit our portfolio here.

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  1. I agree with you. I believe the answer is largely also to make high streets and towns feel like really unique and special places. I call this feeling “dream dust”. Rather a fanciful name maybe, but if you think how thrilling it is to be at a huge gig where you’re experiencing a shared evening with your favourite band, that authentic and real feeling could be how it feels in town.
    Compared with a two dimensional screen or just another manufactured shopping mall, a high street can tell a story of generations – love and loss, striving and success. Every town in the UK has a rich tapestry and the high street can tell that story. As humans, we rely on stories for entertainment and also survival, so our antennae for them are acutely powerful. Place makers and town managers can harness this power if they choose to do so. Make like Windsor, with its royal narrative from William the Conqueror to Meghan Marble, and maybe your town could be resilient like never before.


  2. Great article – Please have a look at ShopAppy and in particular our work with Breckland Council for your next blog – unified approaches that focus on place are critical – their Market Town Initiative shows a clear commitment to improving the prospects of the district’s towns.


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