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Mary Portas should have asked architects to re-imagine the British high street

The British high street is being killed by out-of-town shopping centre and the phenomenal rise of online shopping

Mary Portas’ review of the British high street, which the government endorsed last week, says that it’s not just the out-of-town shopping centre that’s killing the high street, but the phenomenal rise of online shopping.

According to recent research by finance consultant Deloitte, some 22 per cent of people did not buy their last item of clothing or accessories in a shop.

And that is clothes – imagine the figure for electronics, household appliances or other goods that you don’t need to ‘try on’. As Portas writes, ‘How we shop as a nation has quite simply changed beyond recognition. Forever.’

Not surprising, when the internet has made shopping for dull items more pleasant and easy than driving, parking, getting out a credit card, typing in your PIN and carrying your shopping home.

Like the Apple Store or the local pub, the high street must be somewhere you choose to go not for convenience, but because it feels good

If what you need is a dishwasher, there’s something very attractive about reading a few reviews, making a purchase and arranging its delivery having only lifted a finger.

The rise in e-tailing points to an inherent human laziness. And yet we have tremendous energy when it comes to pleasure-seeking and entertainment, something Portas identifies: ‘New benchmarks have been forged against which our high streets are now being judged. New expectations have been created in terms of value, service, entertainment and experience against which the average high street has in many cases simply failed to deliver.’

In other words, high streets need to up their game and become a destination that may, or may not, include shopping. Like the Apple Store, or the local pub, the high street must be somewhere you choose to go not for convenience, but because it feels good. The concept of the virtual pub or restaurant has never really taken off. Social networking, like online dating, is just a prelude to the real thing.

But Portas’ report stops short of real vision; the 28 action points are more about policy, community action groups and tax breaks, and the final chapter, ‘Re-imagining our high streets’, contains just one good idea among clangers like ‘bingo nights’ and ‘national market day’.

This good idea is the New Post Office, which harnesses the rise of internet shopping to boost the high street with shops where goods ordered online are delivered. To make this a viable option (and different from the existing Post Office) you would have to make it more than just a collection point – it would need to be open 24 hours, and offer something in the way of leisure or community services. But the idea of using the internet to revive the high street is the start of a new kind of thinking.

Implicit in the Portas report is an opportunity for architects. Commissioned by the prime minister and the deputy prime minister, the report expresses a desire for action, but stops short of proposing how to make high streets into a ‘place’. Deloitte estimates that as a result of online shopping, big retailers may need to reduce their property portfolios by 30 to 40 per cent. That’s a lot of property which will need an innovative rethink. Answers on an e-postcard, please.

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