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Dragon Interview: How Will the High Street Evolve?

Published on: 12 Feb, 2021
Updated on: 14 Feb, 2021

Amanda Masters, John Redpath and Alex Bellion discuss the future of the town centre

By Hugh Coakley

With empty shops in the town centre at the highest level for a decade at least, we wanted to have a peek into the post-pandemic future of our high street.

Old fashioned department stores with lots of local traders, mixed retail and service-based occupiers and a Local Plan review to cut back by three quarters the 41,000 sqm of retail space approved less than two years ago, were just some of the ideas discussed.

In a fascinating interview today (recorded February 10) with John Redpath, GBC Executive member for the economy, Amanda Masters from Experience Guildford representing businesses in the Business Improvement District and Alex Bellion, director with Owen Shipp, local commercial property agents, they shared their vision of the town centre, 12 months or even five years from now.

That the town centre would evolve was agreed. Amanda Masters said it would never be back to where it was, which was not a “bad thing”. It would be “community demand” that would determine what would survive and flourish.

John Redpath thought that going back to the original concept of the department store with traders coming together under one roof with interesting shops providing local offerings would be popular.

Alex Bellion said that Guildford High Street was said to be the second most resilient in the country, coming only just behind Cambridge.

With that solid background, he foresaw a demand for service-based occupiers moving in, such as chiropractors or soft play areas, mixing with the traditional retail shops. The upper High Street was ready for this approach with the landlords there being local and inclined to be more flexible, rather than the corporate or pension fund owners.

He said there was already a downwards trend on rents but: “…landlords have to be sensible …. and be more flexible on terms”.

Alex talked about the “polo mint” effect with the town centre hollowed out and food retailers, cafes and others moving to the “secondary or tertiary parades” out of town. But he added that signs of life were returning to the prime high street site as well with enquiries picking up since the new year.

There was a general agreement that a boom, from a few weeks to a year, was on the cards because of the “pent up frustration” of lockdown, said John Redpath.

Amanda Masters said the boom would be fuelled because people were so “passionate about local traders”. She said the days of the large retailers coming into the town were most likely over as there just wasn’t the demand.

Business rates, parking and permitted rights to develop shops into dwellings were also discussed.

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