Building surveyor Matthew Williams considers a bright future for the high street and suggests that big screen, screen printing and laser beams are closer than a click away.

Running into the smoke-filled room I swerved between two brightly coloured vertical lasers, before ducking and leaping between the next two horizontal beams. Hitting the floor slightly harder than expected left me lying on the floor, aching somewhat, and watching my considerably more agile teenage son swiftly negotiate a series, of far more complex beams, to reach a glowing red button on the other side of the room. As we simultaneously pressed our buttons the configuration of the maze of lasers changed and we were off again round the room to the next set of buttons. On reaching the exit, points and time were displayed, and we stepped back out onto the bustling high street to meet my wife laden with shopping bags.

With the recent sad news of 22 Debenhams stores marked for closure affecting 1200 staff, is the high street in permeant decline, or does it just need reinventing? Many will remember Mary Portas looking to rekindle the high street of old as “a place to explore, to discover and most importantly of all to experience”. So, does experience hold the answer with the stalwarts of the high street struggling?

The concept of an excellent in-store experience is something to which most retailers aspire, but providing an excellent experience throughout the high street, outside the store door, would appear the best way to allow high street retail to prosper. I would suggest an “experience high street” is one that offers not only retail, but other draws, encouraging people to experience and dwell in the high street space. That’s easy to say, the difficult part is deciding what brings people to the high street and increases that all important retail footfall?

  • Recent weeks have seen the disappearance of the Big Screen in Plymouth City Centre. Originally erected about 10 years ago it was taken away with reports of increasing maintenance costs, bits falling off in the wind and criticism it only shows the tennis!
  • Contrastingly, in the last week, there has also been lively debate in the Truro City Council meeting in considering installation of a Big Screen on Lemon Quay. A record turnout to the meeting had local traders supporting the idea and the town centre activity it could generate.

Some of us do enjoy the tennis, and optimists who think we may just stand a chance in this year’s Rugby World Cup may love the idea of a big screen. However, avoiding the white elephant and balancing the potential benefit of initiatives to business, with any detrimental effects and costs, requires careful management.

Initiatives to enliven the high street are not only in the hands of the high street managers, there are many draws from cathedrals, museums, theatres, seafront promenades, river walkways, cycle trails or art centres near many high streets. Promoting and encouraging them forms an essential element of the high street matrix; Imagine the loss to York retail if it did not have the Viking museum and Cathedral. More locally the Truro Shelter box exhibition, Falmouth Maritime museum, Truro Cathedral, Plymouth Mayflower museum, aquariums, and many more, encourage those all-important visitors; the challenge is creating the experience for the visitor to stay and explore those high street businesses.

A more recent phenomenon is the smaller scale experience, with retail units being taken over by everything from the laser beam trial, I describe to the start of this article, to a whole variety of alternative uses.

A few examples include

  • crazy golf courses
  • escape rooms
  • Golf/baseball simulators
  • Virtual reality computer gaming
  • Pottery painting
  • Cookery schools
  • Art collectives

I’m sure you have seen can think of many more to add to the list.

We have recently acted on behalf of “The Printery”, to obtain planning permission for the Change of Use of an A1 shop unit on Mutley Plain, Plymouth, to a “sui generis” use (“in a class by itself”).

“The Printery” will offer screen printing courses, training and print studio space, adding to the range of activities and services offered within the high street shops. I’m sure the use of “The Printery” will also generate new business for other food and retail outlets in the area. In granting permission, Plymouth City Council are recognising a change in the High Street is underway.

Changing the Use of premises from one “Use Class” to an alternative use class can either be permitted by planning legislation (Permitted development) or it may require a planning application to be submitted. A planning application was required to change the use of the A1 shop to “The Printery”

A consultation paper from the Ministry of Housing Community and Local Government earlier this year, invited comment on “Planning Reform: Supporting the high street and increasing the delivery of new homes”. Amongst other items, the paper suggested changes and invited comment on “Permitted development rights and use classes; to help the high street adapt and meet government housing aspirations”.

The paper proposed:

  • using the airspace above existing buildings for additional new homes and extensions;
  • change to a wider range of uses, allowing more leisure and community uses such as gyms, libraries, health care and office use
  • allowing some high street premises to change to residential use, suggesting new national permitted development rights to allow shops (A1) financial and professional services (A2), hot food takeaways (A5), betting shops, pay day loan shop and launderettes to change to office use (B1). It was also proposed that hot food takeaways (A5) could be allowed to change to residential use (C3)

The paper is only a consultation stage at present, but a wider range of uses and more residential and office use on the high street, from conversion or redevelopment, is planned. As proposed “The Printery” sui generis use would still need planning approval, but there is a suggestion that changes to this type of “experience” use will be encouraged.

Initiatives to bring people to the centre of our communities, possibly from planning or reduced rates for those offering experiences, and enlightened management, will hopefully produce vibrant high streets with successful retail and food offerings amongst a range of experiences. Development of new residential and office communities on the doorstep of retail will also increase that all-important footfall. Once you’ve reached the high street, the shop next to you is even more convenient and quicker than reaching for your computer; “closer than a click away”.

Matthew Williams is a Chartered Building Surveyor at Stratton Creber Commercial, enabling building projects and providing advice on commercial property 07834 996419.