High Street Boarded Up

Our high streets are disappearing before our eyes. Here’s how we can save them

And why we should bother

Bearwood High Street in Birmingham used to be different. There used to be more shops, it used to be busier – not with cars, with people – but first the post office moved, then the local supermarket. Now, Bearwood High Street is full of empty shops, charity shops, and too many cars.

The story of Bearwood is repeated up and down the country. In 2017, 6000 stores closed in the UK, more than any year since 2010. Since the start of this year, Toys R Us, Maplin, New Look and Mothercare have had to close stores. The British high street, the British Retail Consortium (BRC) says, is dealing with a “cocktail of challenges”.

A spokesperson from the BRC told us the “disruption from technology, compounded by rising public policy costs is piling on the pressure to consolidate store portfolios and workforces.”

Translation: Stores are having to deal with the fact that customers are abandoning them to shop online, on top of the challenge of increasing business rates (or taxes), and a higher minimum wage. The result: brands are closing shops, and laying off staff.

Online shopping obviously isn’t that new anymore, and high streets have been struggling for years – but the BRC told us it hoped the closure of big name stores like Toys R Us would “sharpen focus” on the problems the high street is facing. In other words, it might force us to act, now.

Why save the high street when you can buy everything online anyway?

But why? When we spoke to people on Bearwood High Street, they were pretty clear about why they don’t shop on the high street – the shops aren’t good enough. Shopping online’s more convenient.

There are ‘economic’ reasons why it’s important we don’t all buy everything from Amazon, says Alex Schagman, the founding partner of an organisation called Save the High Street (we probably don’t need to tell you what they do).

For a start, he says, there’s the fact that shops closing means there won’t be as many jobs in the area.
“If all retail business goes out of the country, to a big global giant in the e-commerce space [ed: its pretty safe to assume he means Amazon] it’s massively disruptive because employment leaves town.”

But then there’s also the fact that local businesses pay taxes to local councils, called business rates. Although they’re pretty controversial, they’re also a significant part of how local governments get their money.

“From a taxation point of view, there aren’t businesses to pay business rates, and suddenly you’re looking at a huge shortfall in income for local government,” says Alex.

"It's lost the community feel"

But back in Bearwood, people aren’t all that bothered about business rates. For them, the loss of the high street is more about the loss of a centre for their community. “It’s lost the community feel,” one shopper told us. Others were worried about what “older people” would do if they couldn’t get out to the shops locally.

As Schlagman says, “This is where people in the real world meet up and hang out all over the country. We’re not just talking about Portobello and Shoreditch High Street [fancy high streets with thriving shops in London] – all over the country, these are the meeting points for people where they live, these are the places where people go face-to-face.”


We went to Bearwood to find out how people feel about their high street

Everyone seems pretty convinced that high streets are worth saving, but less agreed on how we do it

Save the High Street focuses on making sure high street businesses (mostly independent retailers) are equipped to deal with the 21st century. That’s things like advertising themselves online (being able to work out Facebook’s algorithms, basically), communicating with other retailers, and just becoming “better-connected”.


Troublemakers festival Swansea
The Empty Projects Network ran the Troublemakers Festival in Swansea (pic: Dan Thompson)


But for Dan Thompson, who launched something called the Empty Shops Network way back in 2008, ‘saving’ high streets is about more than just helping out retail – it’s saving the whole culture around high streets. In fact, he argues, it’s only in the last 30 years or so that high streets have just been a place to do your shopping.


We’ve created a mono-culture, and anywhere you create a mono-culture it fails.

“If you go back a little bit further and look at high streets you’ll find there are cinemas, theatres, churches and social clubs, and in a short period of time we’ve let them become completely retail dominated,” he says.

“What we’ve created is a mono-culture, and anywhere you create a mono-culture it fails.”

The Empty Shops Network takes unused retail space and gives it back to the community. Local people set up pop-up art exhibitions –one time they put bumper cars in an empty carpet showroom. “It’s about making high streets ‘sticky’,” Thompson tells us (a sales word for ‘something you want to come back to): by making high streets diverse, one-of-a-kind places, where you can do something more than just make a purchase, people will value it, enjoy it, and keep coming back.


Empty Shops Project
The Empty Shops Project (pic: Dan Thompson)

Somewhere between Save The High Street and Empty Shop Networks’ approach, a group of people – mostly local business people – in the town of Stockton-on-Tees, in the north of England, have come together to form Stockton BID (Business Improvement District).

It works by collecting a levy (kind of like a tax) from local businesses. That money goes towards events and initiatives that make Stockton “an exciting and attractive place to visit”, and ultimately “boost trade”.

Stockton has an annual festival with a carnival, music, and street theatre. There’s sporting events, like a duathlon and a cycling festival. “It’s a hub of activity”.

So does that mean all is not lost? In 2017, Stockton bucked the national trend, with more shops opening than closing. It won a ‘rising star award’ in the 2016 Great British High Street of the Year (yes, it’s a thing), and its high street has an award winning book shop, and an award winning hairdressers.

Thompson also thinks there’s a lot to be positive about. High streets like Stockton are embracing the need to get people into town to do something other than shop. “I nearly packed it all in, he says.

“It feels like the ultimate aim has been reached. We wanted to prove that there’s a different way of managing our town centres, and we have.”

Recent articles

Reader Comments

  • Macrocompassion

    Look to who owns the land of Greece and why they are not using it properly!

    Discover how much the value of the land is being speculated in by holding it unused and the resulting lack of opportunity. Why can’t small scale farmers begin their own production of farm produce and the selling of it to local suppliers for domestic consumption?

    Adam Smith (“Wealth of Nations”,
    1776) says that land is one of the 3 factors of production (the other 2 being
    labor and durable capital goods). The usefulness of land is in the price that
    tenants pay as rent, for access rights to the particular site in question. Land
    is often considered as being a form of capital, since it is traded similarly to
    other durable capital goods items. However it is not actually man-made, so rightly
    it does not fall within this category. The land was originally a gift of nature
    (if not of God) for which all people should be free to share in its use. But its
    site-value greatly depends on location and is related to the community density
    in that region, as well as the natural resources such as rivers, minerals,
    animals or plants of specific use or beauty, when or after it is possible to reach them. Consequently,
    most of the land value is created by man within his society and therefore its
    advantage should logically and ethically be returned to the community for its
    general use, as explained by Martin Adams (in “LAND”, 2015).

    However, due to our existing laws, land is owned and formally registered and its
    value is traded, even though it can’t be moved to another place, like other
    kinds of capital goods. This right of ownership gives the landlord a big
    advantage over the rest of the community because he determines how it may be
    used, or if it is to be held out of use, until the city grows and the site
    becomes more valuable. Thus speculation in land values is encouraged by the law,
    in treating a site of land as personal or private property—as if it were an
    item of capital goods, although it is not (Mason Gaffney and Fred Harrison:
    “The Corruption of Economics”, 2005).

    Regarding taxation and local community spending, the municipal taxes we pay are
    partly used for improving the infrastructure. This means that the land becomes
    more useful and valuable without the landlord doing anything—he/she will always
    benefit from our present tax regime. This also applies when the status of unused
    land is upgraded and it becomes fit for community development. Then when this
    news is leaked, after landlords and banks corruptly pay for this information,
    speculation in land values is rife. There are many advantages if the land
    values were taxed instead of the many different kinds of production-based
    activities such as earnings, purchases, capital gains, home and foreign company
    investments, etc., (with all their regulations, complications and loop-holes).
    The only people due to lose from this are those who exploit the growing values
    of the land over the past years, when “mere” land ownership confers a financial
    benefit, without the owner doing a scrap of work. Consequently, for a truly
    socially just kind of taxation to apply there can only be one
    method–Land-Value Taxation.

    Consider how land becomes
    valuable. New settlers in a region begin to specialize and this improves their
    efficiency in producing specific goods. The central land is the most valuable
    due to easy availability and least transport needed. This distribution in land
    values is created by the community and (after an initial start), not by the
    natural resources. As the city expands, speculators in land values will
    deliberately hold potentially useful sites out of use, until planning and
    development have permitted their values to grow. Meanwhile there is fierce
    competition for access to the most suitable sites for housing, agriculture and
    manufacturing industries. The limited availability of useful land means that the
    high rents paid by tenants make their residence more costly and the provision
    of goods and services more expensive. It also creates unemployment, causing
    wages to be lowered by the monopolists, who control the big producing
    organizations, and whose land was already obtained when it was cheap. Consequently
    this basic structure of our current macroeconomics system, works to limit
    opportunity and to create poverty, see above reference.

    The most basic cause of our continuing poverty is the lack of properly paid
    work and the reason for this is the lack of opportunity of access to the land
    on which the work must be done. The useful land is monopolized by a landlord
    who either holds it out of use (for speculation in its rising value), or
    charges the tenant heavily for its right of access. In the case when the
    landlord is also the producer, he/she has a monopolistic control of the land
    and of the produce too, and can charge more for this access right than what an
    entrepreneur, who seeks greater opportunity, normally would be able to afford.

    A wise and sensible government would recognize that this problem derives from
    lack of opportunity to work and earn. It can be solved by the use of a tax
    system which encourages the proper use of land and which stops penalizing
    everything and everybody else. Such a tax system was proposed 136 years ago by
    Henry George, a (North) American economist, but somehow most macro-economists
    seem never to have heard of him, in common with a whole lot of other experts.
    (I would guess that they don’t want to know, which is worse!) In “Progress and
    Poverty” 1879, Henry George proposed a single tax on land values without other
    kinds of tax on produce, services, capital gains etc. This regime of land value
    tax (LVT) has 17 features which benefit almost everyone in the economy, except
    for landlords and banks, who/which do nothing productive and find that land
    dominance has its own reward.

    17 Aspects of LVT Affecting Government, Land Owners, Communities and

    Four Aspects for Government:

    1. LVT, adds to the national
    income as do other taxation systems, but it replaces them.

    2. The cost of collecting the LVT is less than for all of the production-related
    taxes–tax avoidance becomes impossible because the sites are visible to all.

    3. Consumers pay less for their
    purchases due to lower production costs (see below). This creates greater
    satisfaction with the management of national affairs.

    4. The national economy
    stabilizes—it no longer experiences the 18 year business boom/bust cycle, due
    to periodic speculation in land values (see below).

    Six Aspects Affecting Land Owners:

    5. LVT is progressive–owners of
    the most potentially productive sites pay the most tax.

    6. The land owner pays his LVT regardless of how his site is used. A large
    proportion of the ground-rent from tenants becomes the LVT, with the result
    that land has less sales-value but a significant “rental”-value (even
    when it is not used).

    7. LVT stops speculation in land prices and
    the withholding of land from proper use is not worthwhile.

    8. The introduction of LVT initially reduces the sales price of sites, even
    though their rental value can still grow over a longer term. As more sites
    become available, the competition for them is less fierce.

    9. With LVT, land owners are unable to pass the tax on to their tenants as rent
    hikes, due to the reduced competition for access to the additional sites that
    come into use.

    10. With LVT, land prices will
    initially drop. Speculators in land values will want to foreclose on their
    mortgages and withdraw their money for reinvestment. Therefore LVT should be
    introduced gradually, to allow these speculators sufficient time to transfer
    their money to company-shares etc., and simultaneously to meet the increased
    demand for produce (see below).

    Three Aspects Regarding Communities:

    11. With LVT, there is an
    incentive to use land for production or residence, rather than it being unused.

    12. With LVT, greater working opportunities exist due to cheaper land and a
    greater number of available sites. Consumer goods become cheaper too, because
    entrepreneurs have less difficulty in starting-up their businesses and because
    they pay less ground-rent–demand grows, unemployment decreases.

    13. Investment money is withdrawn from land and placed in durable capital
    goods. This means more advances in technology and cheaper goods too.

    Four Aspects About Ethics:

    14. The collection of taxes from
    productive effort and commerce is socially unjust. LVT replaces this extortion
    by gathering the surplus rental income, which comes without any exertion from
    the land owner or by the banks–LVT is a natural system of national income-gathering.

    15. Bribery and corruption on information
    about land cease. Before, this was due
    to the leaking of news of municipal plans for housing and industrial
    development, causing shock-waves in local land prices (and municipal workers’ and
    lawyers’ bank balances).

    16. The improved use of the more
    central land reduces the environmental damage due to a) unused sites
    being dumping-grounds, and b) the smaller amount of fossil-fuel use, when
    traveling between home and workplace.

    17. Because the LVT eliminates
    the advantage that landlords currently hold over our society, LVT provides a
    greater equality of opportunity to earn a living. Entrepreneurs can operate in
    a natural way– to provide more jobs. Then earnings will correspond to the
    value that the labor puts into the product or service. Consequently, after LVT
    has been properly introduced it will eliminate poverty and improve business