We need radical thinking to arrest the decline of our High Street

Poundworld is among the shops to have shut this year

Another one bites the dust.

Actually, two: as Patisserie Valerie and Coast both potentially face closure this week, for quite different reasons. And although the closure of Coast doesn’t immediately impact our own High Street, it demonstrates yet again the fragility of the retail market.

This in a week when the property profession, in the form of the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) revealed that the fastest growth in shop usage across the country is from hairdressers, beauty bars and vape shops – trends we can clearly see replicated in the local urban centres.

As I’ve discussed before in the Canterbury Journal, our High Street in particular is looking increasingly fragile, despite the city council’s ill-advised purchase of the Whitefriars shopping centre.

This comes at a time when the city’s Business Improvement District (BID) is working to persuade city centre business owners of its value as part of its five-year review, something which is contentious in the minds of many small business owners and residents.

The Fenwick store at Whitefriars

What, though, if there was a better option to build positively on the experience of the BID? It has, after all, had some successes.

Here, some radical thinking from consultancy Urban Pollinators caught my eye this week in the form of a call for Community Improvement Districts (CID) to replace BIDs.

The kernel of this idea is that the traditional High Street is rapidly declining and will cease to exist in its current form in a very short time.

Because retail shops are primarily concentrated in malls owned by property investors who have no interest in the locality they serve, and with the persistence of the idea of city centres which, as the head of Urban Pollinators says, are “overly fixated on consumption”, this decline could well result in wastelands where once vibrant social centres once thrived.

The proposal is that focused action is required, not to halt that decline – which is unstoppable – but to change the nature of city centres back to predominantly community and civic usage.

The proposed vehicle for this is the Community Improvement District, which uses a similar model to the BID but engages residents, property owners and the council as well as businesses to act jointly to improve the (soon to be) former shopping areas.

You can, I hope, see how such a structure might work in Canterbury and Whitstable, for example, where housing sits cheek-by-jowl with retail and leisure units and the many historic properties, parks and public spaces, creating a mix of interests which cannot possibly be represented by something as exclusively commercially oriented as the BID.

We have to confront the reality that the city in particular faces a potentially catastrophic short-term change in the nature of its property use.

Something like a CID would enable the people who live here to reclaim the public areas of the city, while introducing more community and arts organisations to occupy former retail premises and other properties – as with, for example, Westgate Hall.

At the same time, the council could foster and host co-working office space, enabling freelance workers, artists and consultancies to be located in shared spaces where networks and alliances of like minded people with complementary skills can be formed.

Such an approach might have the added value of helping retain graduates from the universities in the area, giving them a working hub which provides cheap short term facilities from which to grow businesses, especially in the creative and technology sectors.

Bold thinking will be required to make that shift. But a CID would be more democratic than the current BID as well as more responsive to residents’ needs. It’s a model that could be spread out across the district, too: to the estates and villages as much as the urban centres, either permanently or as part of a regeneration project.

Something has to be done if we are to convert the evident decline of retail shops into an opportunity to realise the potential inherent in our city. If our council currently has any plan to do this it is well hidden, although it would at least provide some justification for the Whitefriars investment, if sadly not for the ludicrous price paid.

In the apparent absence of any such plan, a Community Improvement District should be a serious consideration. Let’s hope that there are minds agile enough to embrace the idea in the district.


  1. Much food for serious thought here.

    The ideas chime in well with a recent piece by Alex Lister as well as Griff Rhys-Jones brilliant talk last month in the Geoffrey Templeman Lecture Theatre which was arranged by the Canterbury Society.

    Something has to change and soon.

    Perhaps a starting point would be a genuine acknowledgement by the powers that be of the concerns that city centre and surrounding residents have about noise and antisocial behaviour well into the early hours.

    Even a walk through the centre after an evening at the theatre is often less than pleasant.

    When a colleague tried to raise these worries with the CEO of BID recently the response was one of problem denial. This is not helpful.

    Hiding behind purple flag designation -a less than transparent process in the public mind – is frankly unacceptable if the central Canterbury is to become,as we hope it will be a place where families of all ages can happily live together..

    Finally a word of praise for the wonderful street pastors .Without them matters could be far worse.


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