What is happening to our high street?

Taking a closer look at the retail trends on the British high street

Another Black Friday and Cyber Monday has come and gone. It’s the latest retail trend to impact our high street, but it’s by no means the only thing shaping it.

We’re taking a closer look at two key trends that have affected the high street in recent years and how the planning system should be responding to ensure our high streets remain vibrant and healthy.

The changing face of retail

It only takes stepping back to see that the retail industry’s highs and lows are cyclical. Whether it was the global economic downturn of 2008, the market reaction to the 2016 Brexit vote, the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 or the current cost of living crisis, we can see that there are always periods of boom and bust in the retail world.

But perhaps there is one factor that is changing the face of our high street on a more permanent basis: online shopping.

Data from the ONS shows the unstoppable growth in Internet sales as a total share of retail sales.

The traditional “day after Thanksgiving” shopping day in the United States, Black Friday eventually reached our shores in 2010. It caused quite the frenzy, leading to, at its peak in 2016 the UK’s first ever day of £1bn sales. Since then, however, it has been slightly more subdued, with deals typically stretching over a week. It’s not just an online phenomenon (who remembers the ‘mini riots’ of 2014 in our supermarkets?) but its growing popularity is fuelled by the Internet and underscores something of a wider trend.

Yes, the graph highlights the impact that the pandemic had on sales (more on that below), but we can see that as that passed, the share of Internet sales has largely continued its unstoppable growth on the same trajectory as before.

Source: ONS Census 2021

How did Covid-19 affect the high street?

For obvious reasons, restricting people’s movement during the pandemic meant that consumers turned to the Internet. But as restrictions were relaxed and movement returned, did previous shopping patterns also return?

The graphic below from Think with Google reveals the permanent shift that happened in UK consumer behaviour as a result of the pandemic. Where 28% of consumers mostly shopped for beauty products online prior to the pandemic, this rose sharply to 52% at its height.

Six months on from the end of restrictions, 51% still preferred to shop online. The same trend is reflected across fashion and telecommunications too. The impact is clear: more consumers now choose to shop for these goods online rather than venturing onto the high street.

How should the planning system be responding?

The impact on the high street is also clear: less shoppers mean tougher times for bricks-and-mortar businesses. Retailers that haven’t been able to adapt, like Debenhams and Arcadia, have closed their doors permanently.

But what can the planning system do to minimise the impact of this turbulence and deliver a more resilient high street?

Investing in town centres

The government’s High Street Task Force aims to support local leaders to transform their high streets. During the pandemic the task force developed a Routemap to Transformation including guidance on “reinventing” town centres to make vital and multifunctional hubs.

We’ve seen that the most forward-thinking local authorities are investing more in their town centres, with both physical enhancements to improve the quality of visitor experience, embracing leisure destinations and attracting inward investment.

Allowing more flexibility in uses.

The recent change to the Use Class Order is a positive step. Newly formed Class E encompasses a wider range of acceptable town centre uses beyond traditional shops, embracing more leisure uses. The changes were intended to “give greater freedom” and provide flexibility to encourage vitality on the high street.

However, local plans don’t move that fast. While some policies now accept a mix of other uses in town centres, most adopted plans still don’t reflect this change.


That’s not surprising: plans are typically only reviewed every five years, and on average take 19 months to adopt (from publication). Meantime, our colleagues in the local planning authority must work with what they’ve got.

Planning conditions are another barrier. Too often we see operational conditions that go well beyond the realms of necessary and reasonable. While the restriction of certain goods is an important planning tool for protecting vitality, go too far and it will become a barrier to inward investment.

Embracing short term uses.

An emerging trend in our towns and cities is that of “meanwhile” uses: temporary uses that fill voids in the short term which can offer valuable vibrancy and life to a street. And we’re starting to see local plans acknowledge this shift too – for example, in the Wirral’s emerging Local Plan 2021 to 2037 which states:

Meanwhile uses and pop-up shops within buildings, where they are complementary to the surrounding uses, will be permitted provided they do not compromise the longer-term development of a site and contribute to a diverse offer of activities that reflects the individuality of the centre.



It’s always worth a closer look at the specific wording though. Caveats of “where they are complementary to the surrounding uses” might still mean that alternative short-term uses for a site will hit a roadblock during the planning process.

Accepting the role out-of-town retail holds.

Out-of-town retail parks are often blamed as the source of the high street’s demise, but there is a place for them.

The important thing is that these hubs mustn’t become an experience. We must reserve that for our town centres. Yes, they serve a purpose and offer convenience for large format shopping. But if out-of-centre locations – with easy access and free parking – begin to offer the same experience as town centres then we really will find it hard to draw in the crowds.

That’s why leisure attractions in town centres play an important role in achieving this aim.

Measures beyond the planning system.

Outside the planning regime, business rates are a key tool the government can use to stabilise the impact of current market conditions and limit the rise of vacant units. The next business rates draft list is due to be published next week and many business owners will be looking closely at whether small business rates relief (currently 100% relief for occupiers of a single property under £12,000) will continue. For independent shops in our town centres, it will be a critical factor in successfully weathering the storms of the cost-of-living crisis.

Hurdles to overcome for more flexible town centres.

Leases must keep up! 

We’ve worked on a number of projects where a change in use would now be allowed without permission under Use Class E but our client can’t secure the premises because the lease still refers to the old Use Class regime, stipulating traditional retail only.

We’ve had to secure certificates of lawfulness for our laser clinic client, Elan, to confirm that their health clinics are a suitable town centre use and that no change of use planning application would be required.  

Leases for retail units in town centres and shopping centres must keep up with the changes we are seeing in the planning system to deliver the more agile and dynamic high street that we need.

Potential for conflicts.

The inevitable result of widening out the Use Class order for town centre uses is that these varied uses will have different environmental impacts.

Whilst pubs are still in a class of their own (sui generis), restaurants and cafés, gyms, offices, and research and development uses are now all classed together. This is giving cause for concern with some council environmental health teams. Early deliveries, late night opening hours, noise and fumes are all legitimate concerns that are being raised by officers as they look to marry such uses with the surge in town centre living.

Planners can lead the way

These are matters that need to be dealt with carefully, and planners are best placed to lead the way with these conversations, with one eye on the wider objectives of diversifying our high street to maintain vitality.

Whatever the next trend is on our high street, it’s clear that we will need to continue embracing a wider range of uses – both permanent and meanwhile – and adopt a creative and proactive planning strategy to secure a vibrant high street.

If you need an experienced planning consultant that understands the planning system and can advise you on the best way to secure the consents you need for your high street use, get in touch.