How to bring a high street back from the dead

Thousands of high street outlets have closed in the last decade, leaving behind a wasteland of betting shops. But one community in York has found a simple way to reverse the decline. Could their model be used nationwide?

Its the stuff of nightmares. You wander down a road where most of the shops are boarded up. The bookmakers is open, but reeks of desperation, with gamblers hunched over fixed-odds machines. Next door, the payday loans place looks quiet, as does the pawnbroker. Moving on swiftly through a rising tide of discarded takeaway food containers, you reach the only entertainment in town: the tanning parlour. You start running now. Even the charity shops have closed down. The pound shop has a sale. You wake in a mucksweat, praying that this is not a vision of the future for the British high street.

The figures, however, suggest these dystopian scenes are uncomfortably close to reality. According to the Centre for Retail Research, more than 11,000 major high street outlets have gone bust since 2008, affecting almost 140,000 employees. And, although the years 2008 and 2012 were the worst, the last 12 months have been traumatic, too. Agent Provocateur, Jaeger and Store Twenty One have gone under, and its not only clothing retailers: photo studios, ice-cream parlours, pet-grooming centres, toyshops and bike shops have all buckled. Even the sex-toy industry is feeling the pinch: the Warrington-based chain Nice n Naughty briefly went into administration in January 2018. The latest victims, not unexpectedly in business circles, have been Toys R Us and Maplin. Mothercare is restructuring its finances, Debenhams is considering closures, Claires has declared bankruptcy and Jones Bootmaker has closed branches and been rescued for the second time in a year.

The one consolatory note of recent times has been that cafes and restaurants were doing well. No more. Earlier this year, it was reported that Jamies Italian and Byron Burgers are losing a third of their roster, more than 30 outlets. That news was quickly followed by the announcement that Jamie Olivers Barbecoa had gone into administration, as has Square Pie. Prezzo is closing 94 restaurants. The accountancy firm Moore Stephens reports more than 1,500 restaurant insolvencies in the UK in 2017, and says that almost 15,000 others are under threat.

Debenhams … one of the high street chains facing a shaky future. Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty Images
One group not going out of business appears to be the experts commissioned to report on the decline. The average British high street would sink under the weight of all the pie charts and sage advice.
A typical comment goes: Higher spending can be generated by a diverse town centre which can satisfy customers needs for immediate purchase of the goods they want. In other words: if its in stock, people might buy it. Among all the reports on high streets, the one that stands out for its clarity and intelligence comes from the retail guru Mary Portas. In 2011 she laid out the problems supermarket sprawl, out-of-town shopping, the internet, and poor communication between councils, traders and landlords. She concluded, in a typically forthright manner: We have sacrificed communities for convenience.

What is certain is that the traditional high street of the last 50 years, founded on chain stores and well-known brands, is undergoing a brutal transformation. There are also, however, signs of what might emerge from this period of revolutionary change.

In Yorks Bishopthorpe Road Bishy Road to the local community I settle down in the window of a high-street cafe-restaurant-bakery. Beppe Lombardos Sicilian food outlet, Trinacria, is full of people having a mid-morning coffee; some are sampling the impressive range of homemade pastries and cakes, while a clutch of small children linger near the ice-cream display.

When I came to York in 2001, there was no good ice-cream … Beppe Lombardo, owner of Trinacria. Photograph: Kevin Rushby for the Guardian

When I came to York in 2001, there was no good ice-cream, says Lombardo, his expression hinting at the profound shock he had felt. Not like proper Sicilian ice-cream. He waves to a friend outside on the pavement. Lombardo waves a lot. He not only brought Sicilian ice-cream to York, he also brought a high standard of sociability and friendliness. He is involved in plans to stage a street Olympics and a dog show, and to use street art to engage with visitors.

Does he worry about the economic downturn? We are doing OK here. I dont think we need any more cafes and restaurants, but things are OK.

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Bishopthorpe Road is one of a few high streets around the country that have bucked the downward trend, managing to revive and reinvent itself during one of the harshest retailing recessions ever. That is in stark contrast to Yorks premier shopping strip, Coney Street, where 20% of units lie empty. What really hurts is that some of these outlets are the most beautiful storefronts in England: when Jones Bootmaker closed nearby, it shuttered the windows on the magnificent, gabled birthplace of explorer Thomas Herbert, a man who witnessed another brutal revolution in his time, standing behind Charles I on the scaffold in 1649.

Less than a mile away, a stroll down Bishopthorpe Road reveals many of the elements that are on everyones wishlist for a decent local high street: a handful of excellent cafes and restaurants, hardware shop, chemist, baker, two greengrocers, a brace of small supermarkets, pub, bike shop, deli and butcher. Most are independent, and many have won awards. The street was voted Britains best high street in 2015. Bishy Road fully deserves the title, said Marcus Jones, minister for high streets at the time. Well be sharing Bishys top tips with other high streets across the country to make sure others learn from their success.

When the post office closed, I thought we were in trouble … Frankie and Johnny Hayes in their kitchenware shop. Photograph: Kevin Rushby for the Guardian

What is really fascinating about this success is that it is not a glamorous location, a street laden with tourist attractions or backed by upmarket housing; it is a socially mixed area and, at first glance, a very ordinary British shopping street. How did it pull off such a trick?

I go to see Johnny Hayes, local councillor and co-owner of Frankie and Johnnys kitchenware shop, and Andy Shrimpton from the Cycle Heaven bike shop. Both have lived and worked in the area for more than 30 years and were instrumental in turning Bishopthorpe Road around. It was quite depressed back in the late 70s, says Hayes. The council had a plan to bulldoze a dual-carriageway ring road through the area you know, the car was the undisputed king in those days. The plan was never implemented, but it created uncertainty.

By 2008 a fifth of shops were empty, several others were hanging on, and even the bargain booze shop was struggling. When the post office closed, I really thought we were in trouble, says Hayes. In fact it was the start of the upswing. Two things happened. We got the Pig and Pastry cafe opening local owners who knew everyone and worked damn hard to make a brilliant little place to eat and then in 2010 Andy came to me with an idea.

I was inspired by cycling trips to Copenhagen … Andy Shrimpton in Cycle Heaven. Photograph: Kevin Rushby for the Guardian

I was inspired by cycling trips to Copenhagen, says Shrimpton. There was a sense of neighbourhood and community I thought, why cant all cities be like this?

It was a simple plan. Gather all the shops together under one banner, or more precisely one website, and launch it with a street party. It was a eureka moment, says Hayes. At 6pm we closed the road to traffic. There was hardly a soul about. We put up some bunting and set out a few stalls. By 6.20 there were 3,000 people out there. The butcher gave away burgers, there were bands, people were dancing. I could not believe it. I realised there was so much goodwill. I thought, We are going to be all right.

What Hayes was witnessing, on a grand scale, was the creation of what urban planners call a sticky street. The phrase was popularised by the Canadian planner Brent Toderian, who has helped redesign cities all around the world. Our conversations about streets were always about movement for cars, or movement for people, Toderian says. The measurements for success from engineers were about how many cars or people we could move through a space as quickly as possible. But there was very little conversation about how people actually use, enjoy and love streets, and how lingering should actually be a measurable definition of success for a great street.

Toderian has a refreshing, real-world practicality. He cites the visionary Danish architect and designer Jan Gehl, who in the early 1960s synthesised psychology and architecture to reboot the planners approach to city living. Gehl railed against bird shit architecture and towers dropped in from the heavens by globe-trotting architects, and championed the pedestrian and the cyclist.

A couple of years ago, back on Bishopthorpe Road, the cafe owners had spotted a bit of potential stickiness for themselves. The Victorian architects who had raised the terraced houses here back in the 1860s had given each property a forecourt garden. The houses had soon become shops and the gardens were lost to the pavement. Now the cafes claimed it back, putting in chairs and tables to create an opportunity for visitors to stick around.

Steve and Julia Holding of the Pig and Pastry cafe. Photograph: Kevin Rushby for the Guardian

Something about this reminded me of old Calcutta. Amid the exuberant vitality of that city, cars and people certainly move slowly, but the space is often creative, sociable and hugely enjoyable. In comparison, I recently sailed down the Thames through London, noting the sterile apartment towers thrown up by speculative builders. At the foot of each was an empty space clean, manicured and without any human presence. Dr Johnson needs rephrasing: when London is tired of man, London is tired of life.

Of course, nostalgia for a supposed golden age of the high street could be misleading. But, I wondered, was there ever a heyday for the high street?

Local York historian Sue Major is cautious about suggesting Bishopthorpe Road street life was better in Victorian times. But, she says, It might be argued that with heavier traffic along the street in the last 50 years, people have been less likely to spend time there for leisure.

Looking through the pages of the York Herald newspaper, there are plenty of suggestions that street life was more colourful and boisterous than today. In the narrow streets behind Bishy Road you could find a brewery, a dye works, a shipbuilding yard, a steam-powered chocolate factory, a candied-peel maker, and a wooden type manufacturer. There were regular galas, parades and occasional trips over the river to witness a hanging. At Martinmas, every November, Wombwells menagerie would come, the wagons full of wild beasts hauled by elephants. Some of the lion collection had been born in Yorks Parliament Street in 1856.

Was there ever a heyday for the high street? … Bishopthorpe Road at the turn of the 20th century. Photograph: Asadour Guzelian

The whole panoply of Dickensian street life was present, including the threat of pocket pickers and the possibility of destitution. One local musician, Joseph Sherwood, kept a diary that shows how, struggling to make ends meet during the 1880s, he turned his Bishopthorpe Road house into a newsagents, which is now the Pig and Pastry cafe.

High streets may have been livelier back then, but they were a school of hard knocks for business. The photo record for Bishopthorpe Road shows how shops were founded, thrived and foundered in an endless bout of retail creation and destruction. The piano-dealer and beer-seller became an estate agent, then a florist; the Dainty cafe became a baker, then a hairdresser. Others have stood the test of time: the fish and chip shop, for example, is Victorian vintage.

Pete Kilbane, manager of the Angel on the Green bar and restaurant, is a stalwart of the social-ownership movement, having started a community garden, cinema and nightclub, as well as the Golden Ball pub (which has over 180 local shareholders). He thinks social ownership has a part to play. It takes away some financial pressure and means we can have events that are beneficial, but not money-making. The bar at the Golden Ball tells its own story, selling eggs, bread and pies from local suppliers as well as real ales. Some locals have been coming to the folk music sessions for over 45 years.

Kilbane knows the importance of preserving an areas informal spaces. Were slow to get to know one another, arent we? So people need places where they have a valid reason to be. Working together on the community garden, doing the composting that created the relationships that went on to buy the pub.

I want another bar then weve got a scene, havent we? Pete Kilbane, manager of the Angel on the Green. Photograph: Kevin Rushby for the Guardian

Having spent years creating venues for interaction, he is now eyeing up the newly available empty shop across the road from the Angel a rare occurrence on Bishopthorpe Road. I want it to be another bar, he laughs. Then weve got a scene, havent we?

In the past people went to the high street for shopping and work, just like today, but they also went for entertainment and leisure. That state of affairs may be returning. Yorks smaller shopping streets, once shabby and depressed compared with the centre, are now in better shape than ever. With support from the council on road closures, historic streets like Micklegate and Fossgate are holding events that attract crowds. The independent movement has spawned a city map and website.

The strength of smaller high streets has not gone unnoticed. Figures from business research analysts LDC show that the number of independent outlets has risen all over England in every region during the past year, while chain stores have declined. When Portas wrote her report in 2011 she highlighted the lamentable case of Ely, a Cambridgeshire town that seemed to be deliberately strangling its own high street, building out-of-town shopping with a free bus service. But since then independent shops have moved in, accounting for 89% of retail growth, and making Ely high street a success story akin to Yorks Bishopthorpe Road.

Gehls influence is apparent in healthy cities all around the world. After his redesign of Melbourne, the number of street cafes rose 12-fold. A good city, he says, is like a good party people stay longer than really necessary.

On a smaller scale, applying that motto to British high streets appears to be bearing fruit. Portas came to similar conclusions. We need, she declared, to put the heart back into the centre of our high streets, reimagined as destinations for socialising, culture, health, wellbeing, creativity and learning.

This article is part of a series on possible solutions to some of the worlds most stubborn problems. What else should we cover? Email us at

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