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High streets aren’t all dead

High streets in Sheffield

We recently worked with our local chamber and legendary designer Wayne Hemingway on plans for Doncaster’s city centre.

The state of high streets across the UK is not a good one, compared to the busy, fruitful places they were a few decades ago. However, that’s not to say they can’t all thrive with the right ideas and investments.

In Barnsley, also in South Yorkshire, the recently created town square is continually packed with people of all ages, who see the space as a destination in itself. The local market, the ‘street kitchens’, the new shopping complex, the recent additions of a cinema and bowling alley, and the various new pubs and eateries dotted around, have breathed life into what was a failing high street. Barnsley’s regeneration has brought investment to the town centre and brands are vying to fill the new units on offer (which we believe is fully occupied now, in the space of a couple of months). This is a far cry from neighbouring Wakefield, whose last few brands are clearing out and off. Walk through Wakey’s high street and all you’ll see is litter, beggars and tumbleweed. The local council states it has plans, but they’ll take at least a decade to come to fruition. What about the state of the city now?

Barnsley’s makeover still has its critics, e.g. people from the local area, people who knew what the high street looked like in its heyday. What they fail to understand is that you can’t recapture the good old days. Time moves on. Things change and progress. That said, you can attract new people to the area. There’s also the thought that, if those up in arms about all the changes had used their high street more, it might not have fallen by the wayside with all the others. Would it have needed such an overhaul if local residents had continued to visit the town centre and spend their money there?

That’s no slight on the people of Barnsley, by the way—this is what’s happened to practically every high street up and down the land. Ecommerce, i.e. online shopping, has decimated our traditional way of shopping. And the people that complain about progress tend to forget that they also make next-day delivery orders from their smartphone and surf the web for discounts like the rest of us.

Once the internet became a thing, brands moved much of their operations online. This ultimately left lots of empty shops. Those that stayed saw a slow decline in the footfall through their doors. All that said, however, Barnsley proves that shoppers and those looking for entertainment/leisure activities in the centre will still come to its high street. We know this because all of these things exist in out-of-town hubs (such as Meadowhall, Junction 32, etc.), which are arguably easier to get to and park at—so location can’t be the only issue.

We think the general public wants to support their local towns and high streets. Speciality markets prove this. As mentioned above, Wakefield is a dying town, but if you were to visit when their annual Rhubarb Festival is on, you wouldn’t believe this for a moment—the centre becomes absolutely packed. Clearly, people will come to their high streets if there’s reason to, which is what Hemingway and his fellow retail experts have said all along. Countless charity shops, vaping retailers and pound stores aren’t enough to entice them from shopping on the world wide web—but provide something they do want and you’ll see them flock back. Consumers have so much choice nowadays that town planners and retailers must work harder to win their money.

The internet will always win the convenience card, but it can never compete with a real life shopping or leisure experience.


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