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The University of Southampton
Geography and Environmental Science

University of Southampton academics lead high level talks on the future of the High Street

Published: 15 February 2013

University of Southampton Professors Michelle Lowe and Neil Wrigley chaired an Economic and Social Research Council Retail Industry Business Engagement Network (RIBEN) conference which took place at the commercial property company CBRE in London, to discuss the future of the high street. At this expert scoping panel meeting, attended by retail industry experts, central and local government representatives and leading academics in the field, it was agreed that innovative solutions are required to keep town centres alive.

Opening the conference, Ian Anderson, Head of Retail Planning at CBRE, described the ‘perfect storm’ – a mixture of factors such as unemployment / uncertainty, pressured disposable incomes and failing companies, which have led to the decline of the high street, evident even before the economic crisis. It is estimated that numbers of town centre shops fell by 15,000 pre-crisis (2000-2009) and by a further 10,000 from 2009 to 2011, leading to the creation of a ‘cycle of vacancy’.

“Challenges to the high street include, sadly, an acceptance that some high streets may not survive. There is also a real need to adapt, focusing on strengths and USPs where possible, and also addressing new opportunities such as the potential of click and collect to increase footfall,” said Ian Anderson. “But we must also re-imagine town centres, not just as places to shop but as places to live in and to enjoy. The planning system, in particular the restrictive policies of local authorities in enabling physical change, must enable, rather than restrict, the evolution of the high street.”

Presenting at the conference were retail experts and retail representatives Huw Williams (Chase and Partners), Bryan Roberts (Kantar Retail), John Timothy (Tesco), Will McKee (Accessible Retail), Steve Norris (Strategic Perspectives), Martin Blackwell (Association of Town Centre Management) and Mark Thurstain-Goodwin (Geofutures).

Professors Neil Wrigley and Michelle Lowe, who are leading both the University of Southampton’s retail research team and the ESRC/Tesco co-funded 'High Street Futures' project, underlined that social science research could play an important role, at a time when the future of the high street is high on the government agenda. That role includes providing high quality and transparent evidence-based research with theory-based insights relating to the economic health of town centres and high streets and how those retail spaces may evolve in the future.
Professor Neil Wrigley who was announced as a member of the newly-formed National ‘Future High Streets Forum’ chaired by Minister of State Mark Prisk MP and Alex Gourlay (Chief Executive, Health & Beauty Division, Alliance Boots) commented: “It is essential, as those policy responses emerge, that a considered and forward-looking academic exploration of how town centres and high-streets are evolving, may evolve in the future, and can be sustained, informs policy debate.”

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