“The more I look at high streets, the more I’m convinced retail cannot do everything on its own”

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  • Bira’s Andrew Goodacre discusses the power of working with other high street businesses
Andrew Goodacre

I am often asked what makes a good high street. Given the job I do at the British Independent Retail Association (Bira), I will naturally always put retail at the heart of every great high street. There is no doubt that of all the business sectors that trade there, retail can offer the most diversity.

However, the more I look at high streets, the more I’m convinced that retail cannot do everything on its own. The vibrancy, energy and diversity that characterise a successful high street reflect all the businesses present. Success is achieved by all the stakeholders – the business owners, the property owners and the local authorities – working together with a shared, single purpose.

By speaking to our members around the county and visiting different places as much as possible, I’m privileged to witness so much good work (I also see plenty of disappointing local authority decisions, but let’s focus on the positives for now!)

One of the best examples is a group called the Stoke Newington Business Association. It first started because a business owner (who happens to be a Bira member) contacted other owners, social enterprises and small-scale manufacturers with an idea to join forces. In the end there were as many as 70 businesses working together. Interestingly, it was formed out of adversity because the local authorities had implemented traffic reducing schemes, blocking access to one of the main streets.

The approach was also slightly different because they adopted a proactive approach to counteracting the road closures by applying for a grant from the High Street Recovery Fund made available by the council. There’s a lesson to be learned here: funds are available from a myriad of sources, and it’s always worthwhile taking the time to do some research and apply.

The newly formed association then set about making ‘Stokey’ interesting and a place worth visiting. They focused on social media, community engagement and events to attract people, including an ‘invisible people art trail’ and ‘constellation star light project’ that involved local art studios, a nearby school and samba band. One of the co-chairs of the business group said: ‘We know that the high street is changing, and the only way we will survive is to make sure we are an integral part of our community. Our community needs to know the people behind the businesses and the stories they have to tell, and why we, as business owners, are invested in our community and in turn why they should be too. The high street is so much more than a bunch of shops, restaurants and pubs. It’s at the heart of the very fabric of society – it needs protecting!’

It was a wonderful project and a great example of businesses and the community working together. It goes to show what can be achieved when people share a vision and passion as well as receiving backing to deliver it. Sadly, the council decided not to continue with the funding, but the group has continued to deliver for its people.

What makes a good high street? Previously, I said businesses. But in reality, it is the passionate people behind it who really care about their place and are brilliant at engaging others. If we could invest in more of these people (and they are everywhere), we would see more and more successful high streets.