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Rethinking the high street: how can councils revive ailing town centres?

public square
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As the internet becomes our default option for shopping, forward-thinking councils are trying to encapsulate a new sense of purpose and place for town centres struggling with the rising tide of empty shopfronts.

Last year saw the toppling of big name chains Maplin, Toys R Us and Poundworld, while others including New Look and Mothercare closed their weaker stores. The future for bricks and mortar retail chains is looking bleak.

Although out-of-town retail parks have been blamed for draining some of the life from town centres, Bill Grimsey, who has written two reports for the government on the future of the high street, claims that by 2030, around 50% of out of town superstores will be redundant too. “It’s not just high streets that are dying,” he told LGC. “This is a major structural change that will render shopping unimportant for the health of our town centres.”

In response to the problem, which local government minister Rishi Sunak recently described as one of the “most pressing policy issues of our time”, the government has launched a £675m future high streets fund. Yesterday the Ministry of Housing, ­Communities & Local Government said more than 300 councils had applied to the fund in the first round of bidding. The minstry would not provide an exact number however this means almost every eligible authority has applied to the fund.  

The funding will be targeted to support areas prepare long-term strategies for their high streets and town centres.

Local Government Association housing spokesman Martin Tett (Con) described it as “a desperately needed cash boost”.

merran mcrae

merran mcrae

Merran Mcrae, chief executive, Wakefield MDC: We need to look at what created town centres in the first place… there was a real mix of family entertainment

Councils bidding for the money include Great Yarmouth BC, which is aiming to repurpose its shopping hub to focus on leisure and entertainment with cafes, ­restaurants and a cinema taking over empty premises. Kirklees Council is ­looking to secure £25m from the fund to create a cultural quarter in Huddersfield town centre, with a new library, art gallery and museum, as well as a new live music venue.

Wakefield MDC recently held a community event, Our Vision for Wakefield, in order to engage the community in laying out a vision for the town centre’s future.

“We as a local authority can’t do everything,” Wakefield leader Peter Box (Lab) told the event. “What we can do is create the conditions to bring people together to talk about the solutions.”

So how can councils breathe new life into town centres?

As Wakefield goes through the first steps in its process of diversifying its offering, chief executive Merran McRae said it should hark back to a time when town centres were about much more than just shopping. “We need to look at what created town centres in the first place. Country players used to entertain people in town squares, there was a real mix of family entertainment.”

Sir John Timpson, in his recent government report The High Street, found that the major obstacles preventing local communities from reshaping their towns include a shortage of specialist expertise in space design, and the lack of inspirational and forward-looking local leadership.

He said: “Local teams, which may comprise of local government, businesses and community groups, in each town must discover a culture and central purpose that unites their community and attracts them to the town’s central hub.”

In order to do this, Wakefield enlisted the help of Thinking Place, an organisation that helps councils and other organisations to define a sense of place. Its director, John Till, claims that too many views of town centres are still based on “passive nostalgia”. “We are still in a time warp, but it won’t come back,” he told the audience at the metropolitan district’s community event.

“You are not going to fix this problem with any form of marketing, that’s not enough, you need networks of people to own it – a coalition of the willing. This will bring out leaders of place from the most unlikely places, and you need that to get the message out.”

bill grimsby

bill grimsby

Bill Grimsey: Local authorities are custodians of place, not just bean counters in austerity times

One of the councils Thinking Places has been working with is Melton BC, the home of Melton Mowbray and its iconic pork pies. “Melton Mowbray is renowned for its role in food, but you can’t get anything to eat there in the evenings as there is no night time economy or gastropub. We are now working hard to create a new narrative to change that.

“No place is totally unique. But it’s about how you pull together those things that are good, how you package it, bringing simplicity to complexity, and how you get people behind it.”

But although public opinion blames high street woes on online shopping and business rates, this doesn’t explain why some big cities such as Manchester and Leeds are currently thriving.

A report by Centre for Cities, City Centres: Past, present and future, finds the main drivers of their success are the relatively low price of city centre property, and the cities attracting knowledge-based exporter businesses that improve productivity, increasing wages and demand for local services.

Paul Wright, the director of New River, one of the UK’s largest owners and managers of shopping centres, believes investing in good quality office space is critical to attract companies. “Tech companies are looking for the independent stores and coffee shops in town centres,” he said. “It’s also about wellness provision, and how you persuade wellness providers to come back into town centre premises.

“We should also be overlapping the daytime and the evening economy, so office workers can go shopping when they finish work.”

Mr Grimsey would like to see town centres reimagined as community hubs that provide community services as well as leisure and entertainment facilities, “not just driven by changing shopping habits but by the needs of a growing elderly population”.

“By the time I am 80, there will be twice as many 80-year-olds as there are today and we’re not taking that into account with the planning of our town centres,” he said.

“Local authorities are custodians of place, not just bean counters in austerity times. They should be thinking now about what their town centres will look like in 20 years’ time.”


Town centre living

Experts are divided over whether, it at all, empty shops should be converted into housing.

Richard Low, the head of retail at Orion Capital Managers, says turning shops’ upper floors into residential use could help to stop antisocial behaviour on the streets. “Gone are the days when we needed upper floor storage,” he said. “It could help imbibe places with a community feel. At the moment, these upper floors are just home to the pigeons.”

At the moment, these upper floors are just home to the pigeons

Richard Low, Orion Capital Management

Sir John Timpson says it seems “obvious” that part of the retail estate should be converted into residential property “where there is housing shortage”.

“We have more shops than we need and are short of housing in many parts,” he said.

However, Philip Kolvin QC, who chaired London’s Night Time Commission, argues converting retail into residential is “like pulling out a tooth”. “Gradually that gravitational pull of the town centre will decline and we will never get it back,” he said.

Barnsley executive director of place Matthew Gladstone says the council believes expanding the “town centre housing offer” will make the area “more vibrant.”

Peter Geraghty, chair of the Association of Directors of Environment, Planning & Transport’s housing and regeneration board, said converting retail to residential could work if it took into account local circumstances.

Mr Geraghty, who is also director of planning and transport at Southend on Sea BC, said: “A seaside resort has different needs to a metropolitan area.”


Case study

Barnsley MBC

barnsley market 3

barnsley market 3

Barnsley Market opened last year

Barnsley MBC, which is bidding for the government’s future high streets fund, has spent the past three years rethinking its town centre offering and is now reaping the rewards. The Local Data Company’s High Street Health Index showed that in 2017 it was one of the most improved high streets in the UK Town centre footfall was up 10% in December 2018 on the same month the previous year.

While many other towns have lost their traditional markets, Barnsley decided to put its market, which has been in existence since 1249, at the heart of its town centre redevelopment.

“People still like the banter going around a traditional Yorkshire market,” says Matthew Gladstone, executive director of place. “The trick was to invest in a brand new market, with a new food hall and a market kitchen opening this summer. We’re creating a USP that makes it different to come into Barnsley for that local offer.”

The new market is part of the town’s £150m Glassworks development being delivered by Barnsley and development manager Queensberry that also incorporates a new library and several cafes and restaurants.

“We have had 10 new restaurants signed up in the past 12 months and about three years ago we had hardly any restaurants at all,” Mr Gladstone says.

Mr Gladstone claims the town’s “strong independent offer” also sets it apart from neighbouring areas. Figures from retail intelligence firm Springboard show the percentage of independent businesses in Barnsley at 62% against 35% nationally.

Mr Gladstone says it was a “blessing in disguise” when Barnsley parted ways with Debenhams.

“A lot of retail strategy is focused on ‘get your anchor store and investment will come’. But we’ve focused more on leisure, so we have had a Cineworld signed up, a Superbowl, a new public square, and a digital campus in the town centre full of digital tech businesses,” he says.


Case study

Stockton-on-Tees BC

stockton riverside festival

stockton riverside festival

Stockton International Riverside Festival

Stockton-on-Tees BC is grappling with the same struggles as many other UK towns – its Marks & Spencer shut last August, and the future of its Debenhams store is uncertain. But the town has also built up some immunity from the retail recession by diversifying its offering and developing a reputation as an “events town”.

Richard McGuckin, the council’s director of economic growth, told LGC the council has more than 98 events planned for 2019, including many in its high street. These include Stockton International Riverside Festival, Christmas markets the Great North City Games, which the town will be hosting for the next eight years, and Supercar Saturday.

“This event brought people into the town centre in their thousands, and the cost was just a bit for the security,” Mr McGuckin says of Super Saturday.

The council also purchased a three-storey building in the town centre which was turned into an ‘enterprise arcade’. “Retailers occupy the building for just £50 a month rent for people to try out retail and get confidence to later occupy their own premises,” says Mr McGuckin. “It gives the independents the opportunity to cluster.”

The council has also invested in creating green social spaces. The plants are highly managed, which costs money, but Mr McGuckin says it’s worth the investment. “We’ve seen more food and beverage offerings appearing nearby because people do like to dwell and connect in these spaces,” he says.

Mr McGuckin says town centre footfall has also been driven by the closure of some outlying libraries and leisure facilities, meaning ”people have to come into the town centre to access those facilities”.

Rethinking the high street: how can councils revive ailing town centres?

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