New year, new high street: it’s time to reshape our town centres (part one)

Wigtown town centre © Copyright Jim Barton

One thing is certain. The high street landscape has now irrevocably changed and there is no point clinging on to a sentimental vision of the past. We have to start planning for a bold new world.”

This was the conclusion of the Grimsey Review in 2013.  Five years on and the challenges facing the high street remain – now with the added economic complexities presented by Brexit.

Yet there remains optimism.  In the last year, a number of reviews have been published, illustrating how we can bring town centres and high streets back to life.

In summer last year, an update to the Grimsey Review was published. Its title – ‘It’s time to reshape our town centres’ – is something of a call to arms.

It sets out 25 recommendations to help support the high street to transform “into a complete community hub incorporating health, housing, arts, education, entertainment, leisure, business/office space, as well as some shops, while developing a unique selling proposition (USP)”.

In November, Lichfields also published a number of recommendations for high streets, based on their own research.  Their conclusions echo that of Grimsey: “Town centres and operators within them should embrace online, promote themselves better and develop their own unique selling point(s). They must broaden their offer and attract new anchors and other uses, which make them more family friendly, and improve the overall ‘experience’ for visitors”.  It also highlights a number of examples of innovative practice.

In addition to these, at the end of December, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government published the findings and recommendations of the High Streets Expert Panel, and a related report by the Institute of Place Management (IPM) – ‘High Streets 2030’.

The IPM report gathered the opinions of local people, including young people, about their town centre, what they would like to see developed, and the related challenges that they perceive.

Over the next two blog posts, we will look at some of these reports’ key recommendations, and highlight some innovative examples of good practice.

A diverse high street

A recent tweet by Fountain Bookstore in the U.S. highlighted the difficulties presented by ‘showrooming’ – where people visit high street stores to view items which they subsequently purchase online, often only for a marginally cheaper price.  The tweet went viral and sparked much debate.

However, realistically, online shopping is not going away – and in recognition of this, it has been widely recommended that high streets should diversify their offer, placing greater focus on services and experiences that cannot be replicated online – including food and drink uses, and leisure facilities, such as cinemas and gyms.

There does appear to be some evidence of this happening in practice – barbershops and beauty salons were ranked first and second respectively in terms of their number of net retail openings in 2017.  And Fountain Bookstore may be pleased to learn that there has been a small increase in the numbers of indepedent booksellers in towns across the UK.

A unique high street

Another key recommendation is for town centres to identify their own unique selling points (USPs).

Wigtown, in Dumfries and Galloway, is a fantastic example of a town that has developed a USP in order to regenerate the community.  In 1998, Wigtown was designated Scotland’s national book town, and it has since become home to a wide range of book-related businesses, including both new and used booksellers, and an annual book festival that attracts many people to the town.

Other towns have sought to capitalise on their heritage to bring people back to the town centre – such as through the relatively new Heritage Action Zones programme and the £55 million fund announced in the 2018 budgetfor heritage-based regeneration, restoring historic high streets to boost retail and bring properties back into use as homes, offices and cultural venues”.

A digital high street

While the ubiquitous growth of technology has presented high streets with some of its key challenges – in the form of online shopping and showrooming – it also presents a number of opportunities.

As well as making the most of click and collect services, many town centres may also be able to capitalise on the ‘clicks to bricks’ phenomenon – where online retailers open physical stores in order to provide their customers with an enhanced experience, such as being able to trial goods before purchasing.

Grimsey 2 also outlines a number of other ways in which high streets can capitalise on technology – from providing free wifi and spaces for freelancers to work/come together, to becoming involved in digital marketing campaigns and gathering/using local datasets.

In Scotland, a number of ‘Digital Town’ pilots have been set up with a view to improving the high street’s digital infrastructure and skills, and supporting high streets to take advantage of these in order to boost tourism and local economies. Related guidance on the development of ‘Digital Towns’ has also been produced.

A well-supported high street

There is also a range of innovative supports for high streets – some more traditional, like business improvement districts, and others more unconventional – such as the growth of popup shops and other supports for local entrepreneurs.  We have discussed the many benefits of markets for town centres in a previous blog post. There have also been various awards and awareness-raising campaigns, such as Love Your Local Market, and the Great British High Street.

Another approach is to use the planning system.  One particularly innovative example of is that of the Renfrew Town Centre SPZ – Scotland’s first Simplifed Planning Zone (SPZ) focusing on town centres.  It was set up in 2015 and built on the success of Glasgow’s award-winning Hillington Park SPZ.

The SPZ aims to support existing businesses, encourage new businesses, and increase the number of people living within the town centre by supporting the re-use of vacant property on upper floors.

The scheme has been hailed as an excellent example of the Town Centre First principle. According to Scottish Planner: “The scheme has been well received and offers simplicity to businesses who can invest in the town centre knowing that they can change the use of premises and upgrade the shop front without having to apply for planning permission”.

Renfrewshire Council have published a ‘how to’ guide detailing their experience.

To be continued…

These are but a few of the many innovative ideas and experiences that have helped town centres across the country.

In our next post, we will continue this theme and outline some additional ways that town centres can help to address their challenges and increase footfall – through community involvement, good quality, inclusive urban design, the promotion of healthy environments and the creation of homes on the high street.


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