In Opinion, Retail & Town Centres

Following his thoughts last week on the Government announcement about changes to planning restrictions to boost town centres, Director Bob Robinson sets out his thoughts on the future for town centres.

On some occasions, a crisis creates opportunities, which can change the direction of how we move forward as a society.  The coronavirus pandemic has done that in so many ways, but for our town and city centres it has only accelerated a chain of events that was already in progress.

The challenge is, how do we transform our wilting high streets and struggling retail parks to make them thriving locations?

The prime minister’s recent announcement to help town centres in his ‘build, build, build’ speech was welcome in some respects, but it is really just providing a short stop gap that is fliting around the edges of the issue and in terms of uncontrolled changes to residential, could actually prove harmful.  What is really needed is the complete and bold re-purposing of town centres.

The great British public love the ease and perceived low cost of online shopping, which was continued to capture an increasing level of consumer spending.  According to the Office of National Statistics, internet sales accounted for more than 19 per cent of retail spending at the end of 2019.

In March 2020, at the start of lockdown, online sales were up by 12.5 per cent compared to a year earlier, and by 8.3 per cent on the month previous, reaching a record high of 30.7 per cent of all retail spending in April

Of course, now that lockdown restrictions have been eased, retailers will be keen to draw back these customers to the high street, and we have seen, anecdotally, people returning to town centres, perhaps for the novelty more than the necessity after three months unable to shop in store.

But can this be sustained, particularly as there is the inescapable fact there are fewer fascias and more empty units than before March with a number of retailers such as Monsoon, Cath Kidston and Laura Ashley, along with Debenhams, having either closed completely or winding down.

Of course, this issue is not confined to the high street.  Retail parks and shopping malls, once heralded as the future of shopping are, ironically, in just as much danger as the town centres they once threatened themselves.  Most notable among these are the shopping centres operated by Intu, which recently called in the administrators.

To create stronger town centres there needs to be an acknowledgement that retail will no longer be the prime driver of footfall and that they will need to be small and more focused on social interaction with a wider range of activities.  Indeed, I can foresee a time that retailing itself becomes a secondary function with retail units increasingly providing showroom display or 24-hour ‘click and collect’ function for online purchases.

Undoubtedly, the measures introduced by Government to provide enhanced funding for town centres as they adapt to the new reality of social distancing required by COVID-19 are to be welcomed as short-term aid. However, much of the focus has been on initiatives that are little more than palliative care. Whilst the Future High Street Fund was founded on the understanding that it can be utilised for more radical changes, I am not convinced that nostalgia for the high street and the reluctance to take fundamental and critical decisions will allow this to happen in many cases.

This also shouldn’t be a purely market-led evolution, but one within a planned framework, starting with government and followed by local authorities that will enable the re-designation of town centre properties.  Boris Johnson’s infrastructure speech and subsequent media briefings have paved the way for this with such proposals as the ability to repurpose commercial premises more easily for use as cafes or offices without requiring planning permission.

At the same time, however, his proposals to allow conversion to residential use without planning consent are perhaps less welcome. The interface between residential and the evening economy, which will become increasingly vital in many centres, requires careful management and the recent introduction of the ‘Agent of Change’ principle – whereby the onus was on incoming residential developers to mitigate the potential impacts from pre-existing bars, music venues and entertainment uses certainly needs to be carried across if town centres are to have a future beyond retailing.

But the sentiment is right because town centres cannot remain the way they are.  We are seeing more mixed-use development offering living, working and leisure opportunities, which are all setting a blueprint that town centres should follow.

Local authorities should be encouraged to be more interventionalist and may find willing co-operation on the part of institutional funds that hold property in town centres and at retail parks, which are declining in asset value.

Town centres need to become a place of activity that isn’t pre-eminently driven by retail, but can still provide for employment and enjoyment.  In many cases, this will mean more than repurposing existing buildings, but redesigning town centres from the ground up.

It may be radical, but it also may be the only way to make sure town centres remain a core part of our communities.



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