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  • Writer's pictureDavid Marlow

Fixing Britain's broken high streets

Updated: Jun 3

In LED Confidential’s latest guest episode, David and Mike speak to John Houghton, one of the UK’s major thinkers, advisers and practitioners on high street and town centre renewal. The nostalgia for retail-anchored high streets remains a strong force politically, but as John explains ‘Elegy is not strategy’. We cannot make the ‘places formerly known as high streets’ great again by looking backwards and applying tactical sticking plasters. If you want to deliver forward-facing dynamic strategic roles for your towns and city centres, this is the episode for you.

Boarded up units in a shopping arcade

Why we need to think big and be bold about our town and city centres


The traditional retail-anchored high street has long faced existential social and economic crises – the out-of-town phenomena of the last decades of the 20th century; the changing preferences of consumers from shopping as meeting basic needs to a lifestyle choice; and the rise of online retail, in particular. We may have a strong emotional connection to the centres of the cities and towns where we grew up – John recounts his Kirby childhood. But the idea that tactical responses like parking charges, business rates, or incentivising independent stores as alternatives to clone department chains, can ‘make High Streets great again’ is grossly inadequate. The scale of the high street crisis requires big and bold thinking and practice.


What do successful strategies for re-inventing town and city centres look like?


We need to move beyond the limiting concept of ‘high streets’ with its shopping-based connotations, to think much more holistically about our town or city centres. Like place-based strategy in general, John sees a forward-looking vision, diffuse but collaborative leadership, and distinctive solutions that build on the character of place, as essential. Focusing on specific types of demand (e.g. students, elderly) and different types of purpose (e.g. leisure, public service hubs) in different quarters and character areas (e.g. heritage, green) is possible if we use the town and city centre as a whole for our defining strategic reference point. 


Mobilising resources at scale will always be challenging. In themes we have rehearsed many times on LEDC, John focuses on moving from fragmented, tactical scale competitive funding to single pots; Total Place budgeting; and intelligent sequencing – we can’t do everything at once. Attracting private and institutional investment should look at new generations of investors and developers who are driven by social and green purposes as well as bottom-line returns. Disadvantaged and lower value places will require public support – whether through gap funding or potentially ‘portfolio’ approaches.


What sort of town and city centre programmes should we prioritise in discussions with the next government?


Whilst John recognises a lot of individual good practice and innovation in this area of work – his is a glass three-quarters full analysis – he does make a couple of suggestions for the future. He is a keen advocate of meaningful devolution to cohorts of towns and city centres. For instance, we discuss the case for Combined Authorities to have funding for programmes of multiple towns and city centres on a regional basis. The same point might be made for local authorities with multiple towns and a city. He would also welcome some sort of policy lab for sharing lesson learning in town and city centre renewal across portfolios of places.


Next steps and further reading on fixing our high streets


This is a must-listen episode for policy and decision-makers grappling with the reinvention of their town and city centres. Amidst the plethora of material, it is worth looking at a couple of recent, highly accessible, pieces by John about fixing our high streets:



More generally, tell us about your experience of town and city centre regeneration. How have you balanced strategic reinvention ambitions with tactical level resourcing? Let’s get some material to kickstart the Policy Lab to which we refer at the end of the podcast.


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