THE WORD The art of reviving a high street

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Historic England is the caretaker of a £95m fund to help struggling high streets. Its chief executive, Duncan Wilson, explains how his organisation will involve arts and culture to help these areas get their mojo back.

The media is awash with articles analysing the circumstances that have led to “failing” high streets. While online shopping has increased, it isn’t the only challenge which the high street faces. We know various factors that have led to this situation: increased business rates, absentee landlords, squeezed returns from retail and a changing pattern of consumption. This is why we need a whole basket of possible remedies and we can’t afford to oversimplify. Different places need different solutions.

At Historic England, we do not share the view that the high street is dead, because we have evidence from a number of successful places that it can be regenerated. This is why we are optimistic that with the backing of government funding we can work with stakeholders and the community to revive these places with such an evocative history. Culture is one of the most powerful tools we can use to do this.

Our own research has shown that 90% of people agree that investment in their local historic environment made the area a better place. And we know that has a positive impact on the willingness of business to locate to these areas. The number of businesses based in listed buildings is growing – up 18% since 2012, to a total in 2018 of 142,000.

In Derby, a collaboration between Historic England, Derby County Council and local retailers transformed the city centre into one of Britain’s most distinctive shopping areas. After years of gradual decline, nearly a quarter of shops lay empty with many in disrepair. The partnership scheme refurbished 97 properties and brought 2,800 square metres back into use. It’s also created 42 new jobs. Derby (pictured is The Strand, Derby) has become more resilient and weathered the recession far better than other cities.

Alongside repairing shop fronts, the quality of the public realm also needs to be addressed to change people’s perceptions when they arrive. Do they see it as a friendly space? Is it a place they want to socialise in? These are the questions that the programme can help to answer by injecting imagination and vision into an underused space.

The Greater London Authority produced a report in June 2013, Culture on the High Street, which gives a fantastic insight into how art and performance has helped to draw people back to what once were traditionally community spaces. Encouraging people to have a positive relationship with these spaces through an engaging cultural programme can greatly assist with an area’s resurrection.

 “It’s important to recognise how much potential value for local communities can be locked up in vacant or underused buildings” the report says. “Establishing a strong ‘Friends of’ group and listing culturally and historically significant buildings can help to protect and reactivate local assets.”

We spend a large amount of time building relationships, working with stakeholders, including local community groups, to ensure that the best interests of historic places and buildings are at the forefront of work we are involved with.

The cultural programme that runs alongside each High Street Heritage Action Zone will last for the four years. With funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund and support from Arts Council England it will be divided into two strands, the first being a series of commissions from Historic England that celebrate what’s special about the places and seek to bring the high streets together and help them feel part of something bigger. The second strand goes to the heart of what we are trying to achieve by bringing culture, heritage and community together.

For Historic England the involvement of local people in the design and delivery of the programme is essential. If the aim is to encourage local people to once more love and feel protective towards their high street then it is counterproductive if we do not engage with them from the start.

We will take those skills, and experiences, and use them to their best effect when delivering the historic high street’s cultural programme. This past year we have produced events as part of our public programming work with Hidden Cinema in heritage buildings in London and Birmingham. Soon we will reveal light and sound installations, a project called Where Light Falls, at St Paul’s and Coventry Cathedrals as part of our Loss and Destruction season.

While we have a good understanding of the bigger picture of the challenges facing high streets, we cannot pretend to know all the nuances, local issues and reasons why an area has declined. That has to come from the people who live and work there, and from the artists, creatives and cultural groups that may already be based there.

As much as the cultural programme will be about facilitating joyous experiences, it will first be about listening, really listening, to the ideas, wants and needs of a local community. While high streets are important in economic terms, they are also places where community spirit is fostered, where loneliness is alleviated and where personal history is woven into the greater social fabric. If thriving, they can embody that bond with the past that gives us a sense of belonging and confidence.

We want to take all of this as inspiration to facilitate and produce amazing projects that will help people to feel connected with their high street beyond just financial transactions.

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