People walking down a shopping street

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Historic high street in Stamford Conservation Area, Lincolnshire © Historic England Archive DP217289

The Future High Streets Fund and High Street Heritage Action Zones

By Owain Lloyd-James, Head of Places Strategy, Historic England

High streets have traditionally not only been the focus of local commerce, but also the backdrop to where communities gather. They are places that bring people of all ages and backgrounds together to buy, sell, eat and drink.

Yet in the face of competition from online and out of town retail, many high streets are struggling to adapt. Increases in vacancy rates and falling footfall point to some high streets losing this battle. Because of their significance to the wider area and their position as important local hubs, this decline can catalyse problems for the wider area.

Evidence, however, suggests that the future is not necessarily bleak as some high streets are bucking this trend. Whilst online retail in Europe and the US continues to grow by around 15% annually, offline is not falling and 45% of consumers say they are happy to pay more for a better retail experience (see Management Today's article High Street retail isn’t dying – it just needs to evolve).

There is a clear indication that those high streets that are becoming more experiential, offering more than just somewhere you buy and sell goods, are finding relative success. In these places the character and quality of local buildings, and their relationship to the space around them, are central to what they are able to offer visitors.

The Future High Streets Fund

In the 2018 Autumn Budget Statement, the government announced its plans to establish a £675m ‘Future High Streets Fund’, the purpose of which is to ‘help local leaders implement bold new visions to transform their town centres and make them fit for the future’. £55m of that fund has been targeted at historic high streets, with Historic England receiving £40m for its High Streets Heritage Action Zones programme.

Old shop fronts painted blue and pink
Lowestoft Heritage Action Zone - Nos.102-104 High Street, Lowestoft, Suffolk © Historic England Archive DP236876

High Streets Heritage Action Zones

High Streets Heritage Action Zones will deliver a four-year programme of physical improvements, community engagement and cultural activities to revive England’s struggling historic high streets and town centres. We’ll be working closely with local authorities, Business Improvement Districts, Chambers of Commerce, community groups and cultural organisations to deliver positive change; supporting high streets as they adapt to the challenges they face by investing in their local heritage.

The programme will help to revive existing spaces and repurpose failing shops to provide other new uses, making high streets more resilient. The programme has three aims:

  • To change perceptions of heritage and high streets
  • To supporting sustainable economic and cultural growth on and around high streets
  • To restoring and enhance local historic character

High Streets HAZs will target high streets conservation areas, ensuring management of their special architectural and historic interest. In this way, the investment being made in the repair and regeneration of the historic environment can be better protected and its positive impact made more sustainable.

As part of each High Streets HAZ there will be a cultural programme of site-specific events. The purpose of this will be to help change people’s perception of the heritage on their high street by encouraging increased engagement.

Shuttered shop fronts
Shops at ground floor level, the Lighthouse Building, Grays Inn Road. St Pancras and Kings Cross Conservation Area, Camden, London © Historic England Archive DP075129

The role of the historic environment in reviving high streets

Research linking investment in the historic environment to the quality and success of local places is well established. The 2018 Heritage Counts report identified that for 69% of commercial occupiers ‘Historic buildings give a positive image to customers and clients’. In addition it found that between 2012 and 2018 the number of Listed Buildings used for branded food and drink retail rose by 173%; and the number of Listed Buildings with branded retailers rose by 154%. This all highlights the important connection that exists between commercial confidence and the built environment in which it is situated.

Additionally, investment and support for local heritage, along with increased engagement with that heritage, brings broader cultural and community benefits. Building on existing local relationships with place, focusing on its distinctiveness and the sense of identity people draw from it, supports the development of a more positive relationship between people and place. This can have a positive impact on people’s mental and physical health.

Old photo of shop fronts.
Block of shops and apartments in Sloane Street, London. Photo is from the Bedford Lemere collection taken between 1870 and the Second World War © Historic England Archive BL09671

Sustainable positive change

Our funding combined with our expertise has already achieved sustainable positive change the length and breadth of England, and it is estimated that between 40 and 50 historic high streets will benefit through the High Streets HAZs programme. By understanding and enhancing the features that make them special, we can make England’s high streets more attractive places to work, live and play.

We are now inviting expressions of interest for High Streets Heritage Action Zones.

Find out more about High Streets HAZs

Owain Lloyd-James, Head of Places Strategy, Historic England © Historic England

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