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Could love bring historic high streets back to life?

A shop in Rochester - photo credit to dlanor smada on Flickr

It’s no secret that local high streets have been ailing over the years. But now the English Heritage thinks we could save our historic high streets by giving our buildings a little TLC.

Our high streets have suffered at the hands of the economic downturn, including expensive parking, retailers’ soaring operating costs and huge increases in online shopping.

High street advocate Mary Portas thinks local high streets can be restored to their former glory by recognising them as hubs of social interaction. But English Heritage has its own ideas of how our local high streets can be regenerated.

Reviving historic high streets

In its latest research, English Heritage identified a number of areas across England where imaginative approaches toward historic buildings has improved footfall and attracted retailers.

It believes that spending money to improve and repurpose listed buildings, such as market halls, could help local towns to showcase their history and make the local high street more of a draw for visitors. For example, the town of Bolton remodelled its listed market hall to create an attractive new retail space.

I can relate to this, as I live in the beautiful, historic town of Rochester in Kent. It’s home to a magnificent Cathedral (built in 604AD), a siege Castle, Charles Dickens’ summer house, and a quaint cobbled high-street lined with higgledy-piggledy Tudor buildings. Frankly, there’s nowhere I’d rather do my shopping.

However, despite its historic appeal, Rochester high street is far from the bustling hive of activity it should be. And if I were to guess why, I’d say this was due in part to the neglect of various buildings in the area, as well as the lack of independent retailers who can afford to set up shop.

This little high street is absolutely ideal for independent shops. Despite a hugely thriving local arts and crafts scene, many of the units on the high street remain unused.

And research from the English Heritage proves how attractive independent retailers can be for local visitors. It found that the town of Brixton managed to attract tenants for its under-used historic space by implementing peppercorn rents – or a nominal, ‘token’ amount of rent. As a result, footfall increased dramatically and a vibrant atmosphere was created around this hub of independent shops.

A day out to the high street

Another of my favourite high streets is Tunbridge Wells in Kent. The historic high street here, known as The Pantiles, is home to a range of small boutiques and a shopping arcade found in the town’s old Corn Exchange Building. It also features a colonnaded walkway, making you feel like you’ve stepped back in time.

So although there are high streets much closer to where I live, I’ll always make a special effort to visit one of these historic high streets, with all the charm and character they bring to the trip. And this is the goal of English Heritage, which believes that a focus on the historical charm of our high streets could help turn them into ‘destinations’ in their own right.

Does your local high street hold any historic character? Do you think historic high streets could be improved with a little more love and attention?


Having read your comments I just had to go up the High Street in Rochester on Google Streetview and it certainly looks wonderful. A delightful street of varied frontages with buildings both ancient and modern. It was a lovely sunny day, there were plenty of people about, and the bunting was up. Most of the premises looked in good condition or could easily be presented more attractively. I would say it was the model of what a high street should be like.

There was a time when the Civic Trust [sadly no longer with us] stimulated the rejuvenation of public places by getting the various authorities round the table and enlisting the services of public spirited architects and designers to see how town centres could be made more people-friendly, eradicate street clutter, tidy up signage, improve the appearance of pedestrian areas, encourage owners and landlords to do up their properties, introduce individuality instead of corporate house styles, and get the maintenance regime sorted out. Many places now have local civic societies but they are up against commercial forces that are not sympathetic to their cause.

I certainly think English Heritage have got the right idea. I also think this should not just be about shopping streets with medieval origins – there are plenty of places built or modernised in the second half of the twentieth century that could be just as attractive

In the past we have wrecked the look of many of our towns by demolishing old properties and replacing them with ugly architecture. These old buildings were probably in outdated in many ways, but their charm lay in there external appearance and the overall street look. A better solution might have been, and still could be, to retain the facades but build modern-standard interiors behind them.

Peppercorn rents though? If the local authority owns these buildings, and therefore can control the rents, they have an obligation to charge market rent for the benefit of their community, not to subsidise specific businesses (who, after all, are intending to make profits). If a business is not commercially viable in its own premises, then perhaps they could be joined up with similar enterprises to share premises, cut their overheads and still provide a contribution to the local economy. Here the LA can help. A bit chicken and egg – reviving the attractive high street and back roads should attract more visitors, make businesses more profitable and attract more businesses…….

We have recently been discussing parking charges and also how best to cater for pedestrians and cyclists. If we do want to help historic high streets to survive, one of the top priorities should be to consider travel and accommodate choice. We also have to cater for the needs of the disabled.

I have seen plenty of examples of buildings that have been modernised and made fit for their purpose, so I see Malcolm’s suggestion as a practical compromise, allowing the historic appearance of the high street to be retained. It is either that, finding an alternative use, or allowing the whole lot to crumble.

MariaR says:
9 July 2013

I live near Rochester and love its quaint charm – it is a well kept, tidy high street and I’m not really sure what they could do to improve it. There are no chain stores so it has a nice ‘local’ feel. I don’t know what rent is like there, but I don’t notice many empty shops.
Chatham, just down the road, however is another story completely. This is an example of a town centre where local small business cannot afford to pay rents in large shop units, and where even the big high street retailers can no longer afford to pay rent so now there are huge Poundland type retailers moving in. There are empty units, dying stores, the shop fronts are unkempt and dilapidated, the only arts outlet is tucked behind ‘Inshops’ – a most horrific ‘arcade’ that really should be used as a film set for a post apocalyptic ITV Drama. There is a general feel of poverty in the area. I think subsidised rents would help (tricky I know) – bring in local artisans into large units for shop sharing schemes, plants some flowers – I don’t know – make it look like someone cares about the place! (there is a thriving but underground arts community in Medway that would really benefit from being given exposure to the public) It’s so depressing I avoid it like the plague! It’s a difficult one: There is a LOT of poverty in Medway (where both Chatham and Rochester are), but similarly, there is also a lot of money – it is commuter belt country. There is a place for poundlands, but why can’t we have a balance – why can’t Chatham have a bit of Rochester worked into it?!!

It’s easier to buy many things online than spend money travelling and parking – that’s before you can even go into the shops. Going by bus usually takes much longer.

The high streets of most towns/cities have the same national chain stores like Poundland, Boots, Tesco etc. It appears that independent shops and small businesses can no longer afford the rates.

Every high street shop (including independent ones) should have an online ordering system to allow customers to order AND pay online – then collect the items in store, perhaps on the same day (if the item is in stock). Argos and Tesco already offer this service. It would cut down on long queues and avoid waiting at home for delivery. Having collected the item, you could visit the other shops in the high street. Imagine if you can order online from more than one shop in the same high street and collect your items the same day! It’s the 21st century way of shopping.