The High Street: How’s it doing, really?

A closely observed walk along a local hight street here in Liverpool, with statistics, to see and feel how it’s doing.

Our high streets are in trouble. Some blame austerity politics, others supermarkets and more still the passage of time, saying we shop differently now. What’s in less doubt than these various causes is the importance of a good high street to how happy we are with the places where we live.

Elsewhere on this blog I’m starting to look at the insides of people’s houses, looking at how we live and the necessity, a human right I call it, of us all having a secure and properly affordable place we can call home.

But we don’t only live inside of our homes do we? The quality of our lives has a lot to do with what else is around us, including the high streets of shops that run through and bind our neighbourhoods and, often as not, give them their names. So in Liverpool we have areas of Walton generally called County Road and Walton Vale, for example. In Anfield a place called ’round Priory Road’ and in Aigburth one called, well, ‘Aigburth Road’. High streets whose general health is an important part of how their neighbourhoods are doing.

Near where I live in Wavertree I’m going to take a close and detailed look at one of the two neighbourhood high streets. The pair of them are arguably one long road, but I’m making the suggestion here that the Smithdown and Allerton Road high streets split fairly naturally at a major West Coast railway bridge by The Mystery. So, walking to the end of the road I live in I’m turning left, away from the city centre, towards the Penny Lane/Allerton Road high street to see, and count up, what’s what.

Part of the impetus for doing this is a vague feeling I have that this high street has been emptying out recently and that this has happened before. Despite being in a fairly settled and borderline suburban area of Liverpool I can remember walking along here in the middle 1990s and counting something like 20 empty shops. As time went by the economy and the road recovered. But now I’m suspecting that, along with other high streets in Liverpool, even apparently settled and prosperous Allerton Road is suffering again.

And indeed it is, to an extent. Before we take a detailed look along both sides of the high street here are the bare totals I counted up as I walked along.

  • 196 is the total number of business units or let’s call them shops, of which:
  • 28 are empty;
  • 104 are actually shops of some kind, so you can walk in and buy things;
  • 36 are offices;
  • 28 are  sit down cafés.

In doing this count I’ve ignored what might be upstairs in some shops, more offices or sometimes flats. And I haven’t counted big public buildings like churches, a police station or the library. Even in these commercially commodified times they’re not shops.

Let’s go then. Turning left at the end of our road we’ll do this side of the high street until we get to the Library. Then we’ll cross over and come back on the other side.

Immediately there are new kinds of shops you might not expect to find on a traditional high street. In fact, as we walk along we’ll only find a total of 28 traditional butcher, baker, newsagent type places. Much of the shopping now being made up of new things like these old fireplaces and emporia of furniture and crafts.

The first and biggest of the nine charity shops we’ll encounter. With the first 2 of our 28 empty premises either side of one of the street’s big success stories, The Tavern Company.

When I fist lived around here, in a different house to now on the far side of The Mystery, The Tavern has just opened in only one of the shop spaces you can see above. We’re in the early 1990s and the place can’t fit more than 20 people or so, even when full. So I’m mystified to see a notice in there encouraging us all to also visit nearby Penny Lane Wine Bar. Asking Keith, who’s still the owner now, what he’s up to here, he tells me “I want round here to become a bit of a scene, somewhere people come out to for the evening. And they mostly won’t do that for one tiny wine bar. But if I advertise the other one too we might both be in on the start of something?”

How right he was. One of the wisest bits of business thinking I ever heard.

And who’d have thought in those long ago times that business would get so good The Tavern would one day have something like this parked outside? An intelligent part of how high streets might work better?

Then beyond The Tavern, a Cash Convertors and a Quality Carpets shop of long-standing we can glimpse the street’s major waste of space.

We’re now at the Penny Lane junction and this here is ‘the shelter in the middle of the roundabout’ from The Beatles song. It’s a former bus shelter, you could still park buses round the back of it and it’s got unused public space all around it. But it’s spent a decade or more now doing nothing at all. Somebody’s speculatively bought it years ago and put that extra storey on it, but year on year it never gets finished and it never gets used for, well what? Well let’s imagine?

It’s about The Beatles, it’s on Penny Lane, in Liverpool and it’s really really where John, Paul and George would meet in the mornings and get the bus together to school and art college? Well?

It annoys me every time I walk past to see it going to waste. So let’s walk on.

This end of Allerton Road is packed with estate agents, but some of them are failing and here’s the first. Next door is the frequent corporate twosome of Tesco and Costa in a building I’m stubbornly still calling Woolie’s, a particularly sad loss to this end of the high street.

Marmalade Skies, yes it’s a Beatles reference, is one of the more innovative businesses along here. It’s another of the 28 cafés but the only one catering specially to children. They can bring their adults with them so long as we sit quietly while they all do, well, whatever they like. A wondrous place.

And while I’m writing on the list I’m carrying, yes I did this count up properly, a friend comes along and asks what I’m up to? This is Frank Hont, a local city councillor and member of the Labour Party, as I am too. He and I often talk about housing, politics and the general state of the world, and we duly do here. Though we also both speculate on the numbers of empty shops we’ve got now, wondering whether the current Conservative government are really as good at running the economy as they often tell us they are?

Even some of the shops still open having the look of barely clinging on, like that Boot’s Chemist there.

Crossing the Queens Drive/Menlove Avenue junction we’re on the top end of Allerton Road now.

Maray up there, a recent café arrival from its still thriving original base on Bold Street in the city centre, could be said to be evidence of some gentrification going on along here. And there is some, we’ve already seen the fireplace shops. But nowhere near, for example, the amount The Guardian’s Kevin Rushby found on Bishopthorpe Road in York in a recent article on a high street that’s thriving by not so subtly changing much of its offer. Many of Allerton Road’s businesses have been steadily here for many years, nearby Lefteris for one.

In passing, a nod to whoever does the window displays in the Jospice Charity shop. Always changing, always attractively and seasonally co-ordinated. Improvised, presumably, around what they happen to have had donated? Well done whoever you are.

This side of this end of Allerton Road is more about cafés, including a few evening places, than the shops which mostly occupy the other side of the dual carriageway road. This end of the road having three crossing places, but nevertheless having to be a functioning high street that’s also one of the major routes into and out of Liverpool city centre.

Then passing one of two post offices we’ll see today. Post Offices always welcome and pretty much essential to the health of decent high streets in my experience.

Later there’s some outside seating, something the big wide pavements along here could easily tolerate a lot more of, I’d say. Think of the high streets you stroll along on your holidays? Las Ramblas, Liverpool?

Nearly done with this side of the road now. Pausing for my joke about the very long here Pet Shop.

No elephants, lions or rhinos available inside these days.

So finishing this side of the road at Lifestyle Collective (it’s a nail shop with a café) we cross the road by the Library for our walk back.

And yes, you can see the Tesco Humungous on Mather Avenue from the crossing. (It’s got another Costa hiding inside it, of course.)

This side, then, is mainly shops before it becomes mainly offices.

Beginning with the much beloved, hugely useful, locally owned and independent hardware shop Chandlers, in premises that were once a Tesco. Followed by our high street’s sole current pub (I’m not calling the evening cafés opposite, with bars, ‘pubs’ – as if). Then two of those three empties after the pub also used to be Chandlers until austerity bit.

This side’s got a service road by the shops, Frequently over-squeezed with the bloatier cars most of them are now.

A new era kind of shop in the Homework Crammer there, followed by some space that gets used for a street market occasionally. A welcome visitor I’d say as another much needed good use of some public space. Also bringing some more ‘real’ shopping into Allerton Road’s meagre-ish offering.

Let’s get on to somewhere special.

After the expected Poundland (formally a Blockbuster, remember them?) and Iceland, mainstays of most high streets these days, Allerton Road suddenly forgets all the decades since the 1960s and behaves like the old fashioned high street it will once have been. So we get a butcher, a greengrocer and a fishmonger, each of them Allerton Road’s only one of their kind. Followed by a baker’s that serves a probably different market to the Baltic Bakehouse I haven’t pointed out on the other side of the road. A glorious run of shops and all of them surviving and thriving despite that Tesco Humungous down the road there.

But a recently vacated chemist’s soon follows, together with a wasted public square, before we once again cross Queens Drive, back to the section of Allerton Road with less people.

Even some of the shops that are open in this bit look like they’re just hanging on. And then the offices start.

There are 36 offices with shopfronts in all along Allerton Road (remember we’re not counting the ones upstairs from the shops) and a good few of them are the wall to wall estate agents and solicitors along here.  Interspersed with the occasional takeaway (8 in all of these including chippies along the whole road). Then the poetic justice of a Whitechapel Homeless Project charity shop in the middle of all the property speculation.

Passing the waste of Beatles-space again on the opposite side of the road and the church that helps out with a credit union ( and where Paul McCartney sang in the choir), it’s time now for some lunch and a warm-up, in Bean There on the corner of Penny Lane.

After which, the final section of our high street walk.

Beginning with our second post office and the sadly abandoned Hatton’s Model Railway shop, for many years situated much further along Smithdown Road.

Next we arrive at our high street’s newest and ugliest building.

Upstairs student flats with ground floor retail space that’s taking years to fill. Things soon after looking up though with some of those new era shops.

Possible the only ‘handbags with icons’ phots you’ll ever see on this blog?

Above the plumbing merchant’s that follows can I point out one last bit of very hardline Beatles tourism?

That café sign like a windmill up there marks this out as once the site of the Dutch Café, a late nighter where the Merseybeat bands would all come after their gigs in the early 1960s. It was then mentioned by John Lennon in his first-draft unpublished lyrics for “In My Life”. Told you it was hardline Beatles.

And then we’re done, after a proper and useful kind of high street end to the road. (Hi to Colette and Gemma in the hairdresser’s there, also to everyone in Purple Carrot – vegans the lot of them running a really good shop.)

So what do we think?

Just a reminder of those statistics:

  • 196 is the total number of business units or let’s call them shops, of which:
  • 28 are empty;
  • 104 are actually shops of some kind, so you can walk in and buy things;
  • 36 are offices;
  • 28 are  sit down cafés.

In amongst all them are 2 Tescos, 3 Costas, 4 bookies, 8 takeaways, 9 charity shops, 28 empty shops, 28 traditional ones, quite a lot of human life – and I think it’s great.

Moan as I might have – a bit – along the way, I think Penny Lane/Allerton Road’s a great high street which is actually doing ok. Despite the nonsense of austerity politics and all the new ways we can shop the great majority of the 196 shops and cafes along there are staying open and keeping most of the street vibrant.  There are more empty places than there have been, but the area’s pretty densely populated and they’ll all repurpose, evolve and fill up again somehow. Even the ‘shelter in the middle of the roundabout?’ Well, let’s see.

But what do you think? How’s your high street?

26 Replies to “The High Street: How’s it doing, really?”

  1. I need to come down to Allerton more: a nail place with a cafe!

    It’s in a different area of the country, but I know someone running an independent shop and she says it’s the business rates that cause the closures. Amazon etc don’t pay or don’t get charged in the same way and it makes it difficult to compete. So if we want thriving high streets as an alternative to ‘Town’ then that might be a good place to start? Thanks for another informative walk!

  2. Frank Hont is an excellent choice by the local community for their representative. We both worked at Cheshire County Council until it was abolished.

    1. I think Frank’s a good man and a great councillor too Nick. We have our robust discussions from time to time, and that’s how things should be in a healthy democracy. But I’m never in any doubt about Frank’s absolute commitment to the people and place he represents. Long may that continue.

  3. A further thought, in answer to a friend, Terry, on Twitter who said:
    ‘Yes mate I agree, but how do we buck the trend of continuous closures, is it rents, rates or just a change in peoples shopping habits? We need to make high streets desinations instead of just driving to the bland retail park’

    My reply
    ‘It’s all them Terry, plus the love & attention of all of us who work in, own, shop in, live around & represent our high streets. We define these places as they define us.’

  4. What on earth have pubic sector austerity cuts got do to with empty shop units on Allerton Road? There isn’t an obvious connectoin. UK High Streets are in trouble nowadays because of the growh in online shopping more than anything else.

    1. Not sure what planet you’re living on? Austerity politics, in pretending money is in limited supply, is driving more and more people into poverty and hunger, in an economy being run for the benefit of the already rich and large tax-avoiding corporates. Obviously all this is bad for ordinary people and ordinary shops. Sorry to break it to you so harshly.

  5. You you seems to be mixing up ‘austerity’ (George Osborne’s cuts in public expenditure, particularily to council budgets) with a general critique of neoliberal economics. However if Gordon Brown had won in 2010 or Miliband in 2015, high streets in Liverpool as well as other cities would be still experiencing the problems they are.because of changes in consumer habits. The high streets in Formby and Heswall contain increasing numbers of empty units despite the nearby residents having well over the national average incomes. Come to think of it, Allerton Road along nearly all its length serves a district of Liverpool that (compariatively unusally as Liverpool is not prosperous on the whole) is also well off on national comparisons. ‘Austerity’ has not affected these people as they are ovewhelmingly in employment, often on good salaries and therefore do not receive benefits and yet there have been in recent years an increasingly number of empty units on Allerton Road, just as there has been elsewhere in the country. Furthermore if you look at the city as a whole despite a very poor council leadership in recent years its unemployment level is currently lower than it has been in my memory and those in work have salaries on average not much lower than the UK average. So, no, empty units in Allerrton Road don’t have much if anything to do with the government’s austerity policies since 2010. Whilst I’m here however I’ll I’m sure agree with in pointing out that George Osborne was an appalling chancellor and the way he chose to front load his pubilc sector cuts onto local councils, with the hope that voters blamed the councils and not his governnment and in such a way that the poorer the (usually not Tory-controlled) council area the bigger the cuts, was extraordinarily cynical. We must also bear in mind that Labour was to introduce austerity itself in 2010 if it had won the election although they would surely have not chosen to focus the cuts on local government in the way it did and the various changes in benefits policies since 2010 are most continuations of New Labour policies including Work Capability Assessments and sanctioning of claimants. Universal Credit is an exception but that to is supported in principal by even Corbyn’s Labour who just critisise its cackhanded implementation.

    1. Thanks for the longer explanation. I don’t particularly separate austerity and neoliberal economics. One seems to be a weapon of the other and not just in this country.

      And you’re right that our patterns of shopping are changing, obviously. But my general point is that we still need and value our high streets and could help them to work better with some intelligent co-operation all round. But that’s probably an entirely separate blog post.

  6. This is good work Ronnie, asking important questions. Your high street seems to be doing ok compared to some. Low or zero count of vape shops, dessert shops and moneylenders at least

  7. Hattons is symptomatic of another change. Time was that a specialist shop like a model railway dealer would be able to draw in sufficient local trade to manage. Nowadays, Hattons is still a thriving business, but it advertises nationally and does most (if not all) of its business via mail order. And that was the case for specialist traders in a lot of cases before the Internet and Amazon.

  8. I am in Southampton twice a year when visiting my mother and have noticed that the shopping centre of the suburb in which she lives has been looking up over the last year or so…no empty units, except her bank branch which has just closed, no increase in the number of the four small charity shops- supporting local causes – no increase in the number of cafes, a Poundland sort of operation has taken over one of the bookies’ sites and the rest is a mix of hairdressers, small shops selling furniture, , stationery…a Boots, a Superdrug a Co op and a Post Office in a general stores alongside a flourishing florist and a speciality Polish food store
    People seem to be reluctant to use the city centre and for anything but the weekly shop don’t want to drive out to the big supermarket sites on the outskirts so the local shops reap the benefit. Probably helps that they are run by very nice helpful people, too…

    1. Ah well now, if you’d only gone for one of the hardier creatures advertised outside…

      Thanks though, I enjoyed doing this and it helped me realise how much I’ve enjoyed living next to a proper high street all these years and how much I value it. And it’s doing ok. A bit battered like everywhere is at the moment, and so I thought this was the moment to look at the facts of ‘how battered?’ – so some more thought can now go into what would be good.

  9. I’m now into my 5th year as a shop owner here on Smithdown Road, it certainly isn’t easy I can tell you, double yellow lines & road works have practically wiped many out but the thing is, people do not shop as they used to, As a society, we don’t have time to browse and peruse down the high street, if I had to depend just on passing trade I would have closed a long time ago. Unfortunately, the supermarkets have destroyed many of the traditional butchers, bakers, greengrocers, florists etc!
    My shop is a ‘specialist’ shop so the majority of my customers make a special journey to come to me from near & far (it’s not easy to find a vintage handbag embellished with a Russian icon you know Ronnie !! Hahaha!) – thank God for social media!
    I have a passion for what I do so put many hours into marketing. I think in this day and age if you are a small shop owner you HAVE to make sure your business has an online presence.
    As a strong advocate for shopping local and supporting small independents, I wish sometimes people would just get out of their cars and look to see what is right here on their own doorstep and give us little shops a bit of support otherwise there will only be estate agents etc.

    Sue

    1. Very good to hear from you Sue and huge congratulations for what you’re doing. The joy of a real functioning high street is that it has room for the passions as well as the livelihoods of anyone who wants to give having a shop a go. But too many of us think all the shops are just, well, there. So I wrote this post to highlight all of you locally. But also to begin seriously looking at how all of us – shoppers, owners, local councillors and everyone – could be taking better care of these precious streets and shops that define our city as much as anything does.

      Next time I’m admiring the icons I’ll come in and say hello.

  10. Thanks, Ronnie, yes any coverage is great – more & more of us are trying to create our own niche by jumping into the self-employment pool but it isn’t easy. You will notice the shops & premises at the Smithdown Road end are always fully occupied due to the rents & rates being more affordable and Allerton Road where rents and rates are bloody laughable there are always empty locations with greedy landlords sitting on property just waiting for the big boys Costa, Starbucks etc to come in & renovate their property and pay top prices!
    The Roadworks last year which lasted 6 months nearly wiped me out and on top of that they then put double yellows outside which led to my neighbour ‘Flowers by Elizabeth’ throwing the towel in, they have now decided to remove the double yellows but alas too late for the florist!!!!! We really do need more support, people don’t know what they have on their doorstep they are like zombies hitting the City Centre & retail parks as soon as payday arrives!!! Time after time people come into my shop and say “Didn’t know you were here!” and the live across the road!!!!
    Thanks once again for your support!
    Sue

    I wrote this a few years ago on my own blog.

  11. I lived near Penny Lane (on Rutherford Rd) from approx 1975-77. I have happy memories of Sunday morning trips with the baby (now 42) to collect bagels from the Jewish bakery whose name I can’t now recall. And the Singapore restaurant on Smithdown Rd, where you could cook your own food in a steamer at the table, and where, a few weeks after the birth of said baby, seeking to regain a little sanity, we took him for a meal and the waitress walked around cuddling him so that we could enjoy our meal. This post has none of the analysis or answers to the questions you’ve posed, Ronnie – it’s sheer unashamed nostalgia. Apologies!

    PS I ‘ve lived in York since 1982 and am v familiar with Bishy Rd, about which Kevin Rushby wrote in The Guardian. Lots of fairly time-rich ‘yummy mummies’ etc living round there, which contributes to the success of the cafe culture, at least during the school term (though the cafe ‘offer’ is excellent – I recommend The Pig and Pastry for a bacon sandwich…)

  12. What is the purpose of the high street in the 21st century?
    Is it a place to get the weekly shop, darting from shop to shop? No that was the 20th Century.
    Is it a destination and if so why?
    Does it cater for regular locals, mid distance car/public transport visitors?
    Holiday/heritage visitors?
    Nostalgic Visitors?
    Is there a hub/park/Square free from traffic?

    The feeling from your images its a place with a broad road dominating the High Street, Narrow footpaths, nowhere to sit and watch the show ( other people )

    Just not inviting, like my home Hight Street, Orpington Kent, a non-descript, charity, cafe, betting, pawnbroker shop town.

    Some improvements that have worked are narrowing the high street, making it a shared space ( look up Exhibition road London, Dutch and German road priorities) so pedestrians have priority over the whole space, virtually no street furniture, lots more benches, lots more deep shrub planting and maintenance ( biofillia, our attraction to all things green/nature). Still have traffic, but it moves slowly, parking, but the idea is to walk, bus or cycle. Gronnigen is a great example of this been there a few times.

    It does take time to change attitudes, investment to attract businesses back ( paving, planters, water, benches, design in general); Woolwich is a good example; a run down town coming back to life. I now go there to meet friends as a destination, its now starting to appear on the map, so to speak.

    So take heart it can be done, but no quick fix;

    Again the question, what do you want the town to be?

    My pennies worth….. pun intended….

  13. Thanks for a great article, its amazing how we have this nostalgic warm feeling toward Woolies. In their time they were a big corparate multinational, but never all over like a rash in the way Tescos and Costa are now. I am not from that part of the city but do remember Bradys HiFi, Hattons and also a local supermarket called Hargreaves. Whilst we cant stop the juggernaut of online shopping, I believe we should impose a tax surcharge on deliveries from the likes of Amazon, who overall dont pay there fair share. For now we have to be thankful that the area has not suffered the decimation inflicted on the likes of Great Homer street, once a hive of independent shops, plus a woolies!. The area is now slowly improving but it is thanks to big hitters such as Sainsburys (could have been worse ie Tescos).

  14. Really interesting article. I wish more places had someone to do this kind of quick survey regularly! I should take it upon myself to put my actions where my words are I suppose!

    When I was in 6th form Allerton Road was one of our Geography study areas (for retail), along with Lodge Lane and Childwall Triangle. Another study which might bear repeating! Allerton Road seemed at its peak then – that was the late 1990s.

    So important to note how wider context affects things like shop success and community, and adverse effects that can be caused by poor town/economic planning.

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