The Problem

In the UK, about 15% of town centre shops are vacant at the end of 2011. As the UK enters the second stage of a double-dip recession, it's become clear that this isn't just a recession issue though; it's the result of changes over a long period of time and indicates there's a cultural shift, which means nothing will be the same again.

The UK's town centres are typically Victorian (many are even earlier; Colchester, for example, is essentially the same street plan the Romans laid out), with 100 years of unplanned, piecemeal development. This 'High Street' is something people feel defines their local area, providing local distinctiveness, which has been threatened by corporate homogenisation. There are small streets, with lots of little shops, and further shops in areas leading off the high street.

Most of the UK's towns are essentially the conglomeration of smaller villages, so many have separate 'district shopping centres' - the old high streets of the villages swallowed-up by urban spread.

Since the UK's first pedestrian precincts were built after the Second World War in Coventry, they've spread across the country and many of the UK's town centres are now largely pedestrianised. These aren't as well planned as Coventry, which was built pretty much from scratch after being levelled by a combination of the Luftwaffe and city planners. They're usually just old streets closed to cars.

Because of the history of town centres and local residents' resistance to change, new buildings have sprung up on the edge of town - big box developments, suitable for larger national retailers and with access for delivery trucks and onsite parking for customers. An estimated 88 million square feet of extra retail space has been built across the country in the last 15 years. 

Westfield Stratford City is the largest shopping centre in Europe, with 300 stores employing around 10,000 people. It has had a huge impact on the nearby Vicarage Field, a smaller, older shopping centre. "The opening of Westfield has halved our customers," says one shop manager. "Westfield has more variety, better facilities, bigger range of foods and good parking, so inevitably people want to go there."

This is the face of modern retail; big, flexible, easy access.

The other thing that has these characteristics, of course, is the internet. Internet retailers with their 'long tail' can provide more choice, and the UK's reliable Royal Mail makes home delivery an affordable option. The UK is the biggest of Europe's online shopping economies, according to e-retail experts imrg.org, with 37 million people making sure that nearly 10% of all shopping is done online.

So the combination of the three things - old high streets, new retail models and internet shopping - have left Britain's town centres struggling.