The crisis facing our high streets and town centres shows no sign of ending, with end-of-year figures revealing that December was the ninth consecutive month in which shopper footfall declined. The vacancy rate of high street premises also continues to be high – an estimated one in nine premises are lying empty across the UK.
This data suggests a systemic problem for present-day retailing and town centres. The causes are complex including business locational strategies, planning decision-making, consumer spending and expectations, household debt, technology and online shopping opportunities. In addition, inquiries such as the Scottish National Review of Town Centres and the Future High Street Forum evidence review, have shown that town centres remain a pressing planning challenge, with strategic and local ramifications in terms of economic, social and environmental well-being.
Making our town centres more resilient will require changing our attitudes to the use and management of these spaces. They need to deliver a mixed and diverse economy, and provide social experiences not just retail. But while this message seems to be accepted, putting it into practice seems to be more problematic.
Policies into practice
At a policy level, the National Review of Town Centres in Scotland asserted the case for a deliberate ‘town centre first’ principle to stem the leeching of investment and retailing activity to out of town locales. The review also advocated the diversification of town centre activities, including provision of residential uses and affordable housing. This was broadly accepted by the Scottish Government; and the Town Centre First principle, agreed with COSLA, to discharge a ‘collective responsibility to help town centres thrive sustainably, reinvent their function, and meet the needs of residents, businesses, and visitors for the 21st century’ sums up this ambition.
Meanwhile Paragraph 23 of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), along with the revised National Planning Practice Guidance (NPPG) on town centre development and planning, recognises town centres as being at the heart of communities.
In practice, however, the ongoing failure of many high streets suggests that they are not transforming at the rate or scale that is needed.
Positive, organised and strategic (joined up) intervention, working across the public and private sectors, seems to be the only way to address a highly complex matter. Initiatives such as business improvement districts (BIDs) have been trialling new ways of managing and marketing successful town centres. A report last year from the Centre for Policy Studies looked at the positive impact of the 41 BIDs within London – 7.6% of London firms and over 11% of the total London workforce were located in BID areas.
The report noted that outside of London and Scotland, property owners cannot financially contribute to the measure. Business tenants tend to demonstrate relatively more short-term approaches to the development of the BID, so rolling out of property owner BIDs across England could be a way to maximise the full potential of the business-led measure.
Applying lessons from London to other parts of the country can be problematic however – after all, London is a city and a city-region with a very marked concentration of economic and political power in terms of investment, spending power and employment. The experience there of economic resilience does not resonate with the circumstances elsewhere across England and the UK.
Moreover, BIDs involve not simply economic considerations but complex issues around governance, democracy and transparency. Understanding the challenges of town centres must involve an appreciation of market decisions and the unintended consequences of government actions to address those very problems.
The barriers created by complexity were also raised last month in a report arguing for town centre investment zones to align initiatives and unlock improvement. Pooling a critical mass of property assets into an investment vehicle could allow area-wide problems to be tackled.
The community dimension
What seems to be missing from the town centre debate at the moment is a specific focus on the causes of a tangible malaise – the loss of community in many urban areas. The BID concept could very well be a compelling one, but a wider and more informed political conversation is needed before we dismantle all public interest considerations.
And so the conundrum at the heart of our towns and cities remains … how do we create and maintain vibrant places that people want to work and live in, when our planning and economic policies are still geared towards prioritising growth over wellbeing?
And how do we transform our high streets in a strategic way, to meet the needs of 21st century living?
This blog draws on the article by Professor Greg Lloyd that first appeared in Scottish Planning and Environmental Law Journal: Greg Lloyd (2015) High streets again! SPEL 172, pp124-125
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