Designed for Business? The Challenges Facing Wales’s High Streets

This week, it was announced that Mary Portas, Queen of Shops, has been appointed by the UK government to tackle the decline in our high streets. Carole-Anne Davies, CEO of the Design Commission for Wales (DCfW), takes a look at the role that design can play in helping to revitalise our failing towns centres.

“It was with more than a little casual interest that I followed the story about Mary Portas’s appointment by Downing Street to tackle our ailing high streets this week.

“The continuing challenges faced by our town centres is something that we’ve given a lot of attention to at the Design Commission for Wales. Last year, at conferences hosted both by the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) Cymru and the Institute of Welsh Affair, I spoke about the threats to our town centres and the role good architecture and urban design plays in helping to deliver and support ‘places for life’.

“And in the same month that the Financial Times reported on the ‘changing face of British high streets’ and the ‘doughnut effect’ caused by edge of town retail encircling traditional centres, DCfW decided to devise a series of events focusing on the value of design in helping to secure the future of our towns. The result of this is Ruthin Futures, a week-long event that starts on 23 May celebrating people, place and potential.

“As part of Ruthin Futures, DCfW will host the Designed for Business seminar, which grew from our analysis of the challenges and opportunities ahead for the towns and villages of Wales.

“Throughout this period, as I thought about the challenges facing our high streets, one image stuck in my mind as if played on continuous loop on a miniature cinema screen and that was the opening footage of the TV series, Mary Queen of Shops.

“Armed with edgy leather jacket, mega-jewellery, a sharp haircut and a profound understanding of design for the retail environment, Mary Portas set out to save our shops.

“Watching Portas rage against decline and despair at boarded-up frontage while she simultaneously transforms the fortunes of independent traders is enough to get the whole country on its feet. Or is it?

“Portas’s Twitter following is 73,571 with 14,586 backing the retail queen on Facebook. Via her website, the high street heroine is inviting comment from all comers and the column inches stretch for miles.

“I’m a big fan of Mary Portas. She has an undeniable track record and it’s great that she’s been engaged to take on the high street challenge. More power to her elbow. However, she’s going to need more than c88,000 people (not even half the population of Cardiff) tweeting, to make a difference. It’s vital that her review is informed by what’s already happening, what good practice is working and can be shared, and what action governments will back, pending the outcome of the review.

“Big box retail and internet purchasing have undoubtedly influenced the shift in retail and consumer behaviour. It’s been detrimental to the distinctiveness of our towns and villages, to traffic impact, and to efficient resource and energy consumption.

“While some figures in the FT report have since been questioned it did include an important quote from Liz Peace, of the British Property Federation who noted that “Given the structural nature of these changes there is no point harking back to the old high streets we all claimed to love. We need to be creative in looking for new roles and uses for these empty shops.” This highlights a need for more than nostalgia. The stable door is off its hinges and the horses long gone. We all need to own up to our piece of the problem and actively contribute to solutions.

“So what initiatives are out there and what’s it got to do with design? In Wales, some of the most challenging areas are among the smallest rural spots and market towns. When cities must constantly and aggressively pursue retail spend, imagine what it’s like for Pontypool, Rhyl, Porthcawl or Ruthin. Nevertheless some are already doing it themselves.

“Ruthin has built on town and county local authority relationships and an active grass-roots community. Retailers, the arts and faith communities, schools, hoteliers and the wider public have achieved much – from the re-design to RIBA award-winning standard of the Ruthin Craft Centre, to a reputation for local food, good markets and great hotels.

“In 2010, The Guardian reported that Ruthin was a “Gem of a town – an identity all of its own – with no Starbucks or McDonalds and nine places to have tea or coffee, the most prestigious being Annie’s which has 15 varieties of scone!” The Bro Rhuthun partnership has worked with local businesses to build a website, produce some very swish jute bags, and launch a town loyalty card in partnership with local retailers. All well ahead of Mary.

“We are at last seeing some key differentiators being used as unique selling points. The Welsh language, local produce and a distinctive brand, whether it’s Michael Sheen or Melin Tregwynt, is being more effectively exploited. Portas calls this ‘the point of difference’, aka the differentiation strategies familiar to big business which secure market resilience when price wars burn out. And good design is a key differentiator.

“Successive reports over the last decade have demonstrated the economic value of good design, not least the 2007 report commissioned by Places Matter! The North West Regional Design Review Panel – part of England’s North West Regional Development Agency.

“These demonstrated that good architecture and urban design had real economic impact, showing that good design could add up to 20% in rental and capital value and speed up lettings and sales. In 2009, the follow-up tested the findings in the context of economic downturn and the research held fast.

“In addition it revealed, as DCfW has consistently argued, that good design significantly mitigates the costly effects of poorly designed environments which are detrimental to social, environmental and economic success. Good design draws multiple benefits, achieving better rents and market attractiveness due to enhanced profile and image. Design bolsters civic pride and supports access to goods, services and amenities; it stimulates local supply, delivers energy and carbon efficiency, reduces pollution and strengthens ecological benefits. Design forms part of a skilled employment sector and sets career paths for talented creative people, capable of delivering innovation.

“So Mary, go for gold, but please remember we need a whole package. While flexible business rates, pop-ups and meanwhile uses are important in the mix, retailers and businesses working together, grass-roots effort and great design are all needed if we really are going to ‘bring back the bustle’.

Carole-Anne Davies is Chief executive of the Design Commission for Wales, which champions high standards of design and architecture in Wales.