Championing the high street – a look at a UK Government initiative

by Prof Simon Quin

The speed of change in retail is having a real impact on places. From ghost malls to dark stores in North America and the headline-hitting town centre vacancy across much of Europe, it is easy to be persuaded that we are nearing the end of bricks and mortar retail. Those of us working in place management know this is not the case but there are plenty of recent examples of how once a story gets a hold, the prophecy becomes self-fulfilling. This is why the Institute welcomed the re-emergence of the Great British High Street Awards. Promoted by the UK Government at Ministerial level and with strong backing from principal sponsor Visa, the initiative had sufficient weight to gain media attention and make its own headlines over an extended period, culminating in an award ceremony on 15 November.

The Great British High Street (GBHS) Awards had been run in the past but were not held last year. Relaunched for 2018, they had a new format with additional categories of awards and much more effort was made by government to attract widespread interest. Over the course of the Summer, 240 entries were submitted. Some high streets were looking to have their success recognised as a Champion High Street, others were seeking recognition for their proposed activities in the next year as Rising Stars, and individuals who were actively involved in making their high streets better could be recognised as High Street Heroes.

Those seeking recognition as a Champion High Street had to provide evidence to show their success in several areas. They needed to demonstrate the sense of community around the high street, to show who was involved and how people worked together. The second requirement was to show an improvement to customer experience and the extent to which this would benefit different sections of society. The third criteria related to protecting and improving the local environment, which included the public realm and the fourth was about evidence of digital transformation, embracing new technologies to improve the high street experience. In addition, high streets were assessed by the judges for evidence of leadership, impact and innovation.

An initial examination of the submissions resulted in a shortlist for the Champion award of 26 locations. Each of these locations was subject to a two-hour visit by a judging panel comprised of experts in the high street. Many of these experts came from leading trade and industry bodies that supported the competition, including those in retail, retail and commercial property, markets, hospitality, and place management, including the Institute of Place Management. The visits tested the submissions against what was happening on the ground.

The judges’ visits were supported by a GBHS promotional campaign to encourage high street visitors to vote for their high street online. 30% of the overall score was dependent on the public online vote, with the judges’ scores accounting for 70%. Most of the entrants invited local media to cover the judges’ visit, with some achieving regional television coverage.

Although much discussion could be had about the submission criteria and even the judging criteria, and it may be the revisions to both are made in future years, the competition was extremely effective in generating positive news coverage of high streets. The application process helped locations to think about what they were doing in the high street and encouraged communication and engagement. Short-listed entries were able to gain positive media coverage and to reinforce for their stakeholders that they were on the right track. The judging process provided opportunities for influential people in key industry associations to see at first hand and in depth what is happening on the ground. The details of town centre interventions were also shared at first hand to the team within government responsible for developing policy in this area and also directly to the Minister. It is important to note that the Awards are not all that Government is doing to support high streets and a range of initiatives and significant funding were announced in this Autumn’s Budget.

Visa’s engagement as primary sponsor was enthusiastic and committed. We heard repeatedly that UK Visa staff were briefed on the involvement and the support they provided. It is unlikely to be a coincidence that Visa’s Christmas advert in the UK is about shopping on the high street and this is a significant part of message changing.

Crickhowell in Wales was named the UK and the Wales Champion High Street, Altrincham was England’s Champion High Street, Alness was the winner in Scotland and Portadown in Northern Ireland. You can find details of the winners across the various categories here

The Great British High Street Awards were of sufficient credibility to generate significant positive media mentions about lively and successful high streets contrary to many other stories. After this solid start, there is great potential for future years and we are aware of some very constructive ideas for this. The Institute wants to congratulate MHCLG and Visa for the success this year. We fully supports the continuation of the Awards and are happy to help grow the concept. One final thought is that although the awards ceremony brochure contained brief summaries of what each shortlisted entry was doing, they provide only limited insight. It would be a pity if there was not a better way of capturing and sharing the successful interventions that have made these high streets winners.