Britain’s town centres: down, but not out

Image: Mayfield development, Manchester (U+I plc)

Town centres have taken a battering in the past year, with many shops and services forced to close during lockdowns and growing numbers of stores going out of business.

But even before Covid-19, UK high streets were already under pressure. Economic recessions, rising business rates, higher rents, the growth of online shopping and development out-of-town retail parks have left Britain’s town centres struggling to survive.

Last month, Planning magazine brought together a panel of experts to discuss the future of town centres. Among the issues considered were trends affecting town centres, how demand for town centre property is changing post-pandemic and how developers are responding to changes in market demand and planning laws.

The bigger picture: online shopping and working from home

Jennet Siebrits, head of CBRE UK’s research team, gave a helpful overview of two key trends affecting town centres.

In the past decade, e-commerce has seen a dramatic increase in activity. Since 2011, the value of online shopping has mushroomed from £23 billion to £58 billion –a 158% increase. But in 2020, even that figure was eclipsed, with the value of e-commerce rising to £84 billion – a 44% increase in just one year. The evidence from the first national lockdown suggests that this step change is here to stay.

The impact of this, along with the Covid-19 restrictions, has been grim for town centre stores. Over 11,000 shops closed in 2020, and while not all of those closures were due to online shopping, it’s clear that e-commerce has been a real driver of this.

Jennet suggested that, as the restrictions ease, it’s likely that supermarkets, along with in-store health and beauty and DIY stores will continue to attract customers. But other sectors will have to come up with innovative ways to lure consumers off their iPads.

Jennet also highlighted the increased move towards home working. Once people return to their workplaces, it’s likely that many will ask to continue working from home, at least for part of the working week.

The rise in home working may also affect demand for residential property, with more people moving further away from city centres. This could have a knock-on effect for ancillary services like coffee kiosks and sandwich bars, with local town centres capitalising on the losses experienced by city centres.

The legal perspective: changes to planning laws

David Mathias, a specialist planning solicitor at Shoosmiths law firm described some recent planning law changes that have particular relevance to town centres.

Since the demise of Woolworths in 2008, more and more UK department stores have been closing down, leaving big gaps on the high street. In future, it’s likely that many property developers will want to convert from retail to residential.

Until recently, permitted development rights for conversion to residential only applied in a limited set of commercial uses. But the UK government has announced new permitted development rights in England enabling greater flexibility on conversions without the need for planning permission. These will go ahead in August, subject to certain conditions.

In addition, further legislation on expansion of permitted development rights introduced last summer allows the construction of an additional storey on freestanding blocks and buildings on a terrace to create additional housing, and the demolition of buildings built before 1990 and construction of new dwellings in their place.

The government has argued that these changes will help to revive town centres, although others believe easing planning rules for developers will have the opposite effect. 

The developer’s perspective: re-imagining Manchester

Martyn Evans from the U+I Group offered his view of how developers are responding to changes in market demand and planning. He did so using U+I’s development at Mayfield in Manchester.

Located next to Piccadilly railway station, in the centre of the city, this 24 acre-site is being redeveloped from derelict railway land. A consortium of Manchester City Council, Transport for Greater Manchester and London & Continental Railways (LCR), along with U+I, has been working to regenerate the area, with the first buildings due for completion next year.

Right from the start, the consortium focused on the importance of creating a place where people want to live, work, rest and relax. One important feature of the development is a seven-acre park. Although it was planned into the scheme years ago, this green space has become all the more significant in the past year.

Image: Mayfield development, Manchester (U+I plc)

The pandemic has demonstrated the importance of green space as a vital part of city living, both for physical health and mental wellbeing. Such spaces not only attract workers, residents and visitors, they also increase the value of developments. And because decisions about commercial property are increasingly being taken by HR teams rather than finance departments, the wellbeing benefits of workers’ surroundings are being taken more seriously. In short, understanding quality of place gives developers more of a competitive edge. 

The local authority perspective: managing change

To conclude, Michael Kiely from the Planning Officers Society looked at what local planning authorities can do to help sustain town centres.

Michael described some of the planning tools local authorities can use, including strategic planning, masterplanning and local plans. But with recent changes in planning laws, including the use classes order, Michael argued that policies such as Town Centre First may be ineffective.

However, local authorities can still make a difference, through partnerships with other stakeholders, such as land owners and Business Improvement Districts (BIDS), and the use of intervention and compulsory purchase powers.

In closing, Michael suggested the need for a licensing or permitting regime to manage and curate activities so that they do not cause harm and town centres can thrive.

Future perspectives: rethinking town centres

A £150m project to revamp London’s Oxford Street signals that high streets are already re-imagining themselves as leisure-focused and “experiential shopping” centres. And the Mayfield site in Manchester has the potential to transform a part of the city centre that has been underused for decades.

These are just two examples of the planning community working together to help sustain town centres. Britain’s high streets face substantial challenges, but this interesting discussion suggested there are good reasons to optimistic about the future.

A recording of The Future of Our Town Centres discussion is available to watch on-demand at the Planning magazine website.


Further reading: more on town centres from The Knowledge Exchange blog

The three keys to successful home working

wfh

by Scott Faulds

Over the past few weeks, we have all had to make massive changes to the way we live our lives in order to protect ourselves and those around us from Coronavirus. From the closure of gyms to the socially distanced queues outside of supermarkets, it really is impossible to imagine a single aspect of our daily lives that has not been altered in some way. Until a viable treatment or vaccine is found, it appears that we will need to get used to this, “new normal”, with social distancing measures likely to be in place for the foreseeable future. As a result, many of us are now coming to terms with working from our homes for an indefinite period of time.

The sudden shift from working in an office to working from home has required many of us to quickly adapt and get to grips with new ways of working, such as conducting meetings virtually via Zoom. A survey conducted, during the first two weeks of the UK’s “lockdown” by the Institute for Employment Studies, has found that workers who are new to working from home are more likely to be experiencing poor mental health and 50% of those surveyed are now no-longer happy with their work-life balance. Additionally, the survey revealed that a majority of workers are concerned that they are no longer getting enough exercise and have reported a variety of new physical health issues, such as loss of sleep; back/neck pain; eye strain and headaches. 

The issues raised in the Institute for Employment Studies survey are concerning, especially when it is not clear when we will be able to return to our places of work. Therefore, it is vital that we consider what actions we can take to ensure that we are able to successfully work from home, without compromising our physical and mental health. 

1. Routine

Although working from home can be challenging there are some benefits, such as significantly shorter commutes to the office, which allows us to have a little bit longer in bed. Even though it may be tempting to get up at a different time each day and get straight to work, this irregularity in your normal day-to-day routine may be having a negative impact on your mental wellbeing. 

Research has shown that sticking to a daily routine can help to reduce stress and alleviate anxiety. Therefore, even though we may no longer have as long a commute to the office, ensuring that you are waking up and getting ready for work at a regular time each day, can help to put you in the right mindset to have a productive day. 

Although it might seem like a good idea to stay in your pyjamas all day, getting dressed for work (even putting on informal clothes) helps us to psychologically prepare to start our working day. Consequently, getting changed back into comfy clothes at the end of the workday can have the opposite effect and help us enter a more relaxed state of mind. The simple act of changing our clothes can help to create a mental separation between work and home, which is important when our physical environment remains the same.

2. Breaks

Ensuring you have a good routine is clearly important when working from home. However, being sedentary and staring at a computer screen all day can negatively impact your physical and mental health. Taking regular breaks, even just to make a cup of tea, can help to break up the monotony of the working day. Research has shown that frequent short breaks are more beneficial than less frequent ones, and can improve your overall productivity. In particular, it is important not to eat lunch at our desks, as research by the University of Surrey has found that food eaten whilst you are distracted does not fill you up and can lead to overeating.

Although our morning commutes may sometimes be annoying, they did at least ensure that we were leaving the house once a day. Breaking-up your working day by doing some exercise, such as going for a short walk or following an online exercise class, can help to improve your mood. Regular exercise has even been proven to boost the body’s immune system.

3. Boundaries

Undoubtedly, working from home does involve some degree of boundary blurring between our places of work and our homes. For many this has translated into working longer hours and feeling less rested and more anxious throughout the day. As previously discussed, the physical act of getting ready and commuting to work allows our brains to shift from “home” to “work” mode. Setting out clear boundaries regarding when, where and how we work is vital to maintaining our wellbeing and maximising our productivity.

For example, although it may be tempting to work from your bed or couch, these areas are predominantly associated with relaxation. Blurring the lines between work and home in these spaces may reduce your productivity when you are trying to work and prevent you from relaxing when work is over.

Additionally, working from your bed or couch may cause you physical health problems. If you have to sit in front of a computer for an extended period, the NHS advises that you should be sitting in a chair which supports your lower back, your feet should be on the floor and your screen should be at eye level.

Final thoughts

Working from home for an indefinite period of time may not be ideal, however, it is vital in order to stop the spread of the Coronavirus. During this period of uncertainty, it is important that we look after our physical and mental health and recognise the ways in which we can improve our “new normal”.

Although it may be tempting to work from the couch in our pyjamas, research has shown that in order to maintain our wellbeing, it is vital to retain a sense of division between our home and work lives. Therefore, we can protect our wellbeing and ensure we remain productive through following a regular routine, taking frequent breaks when required and ensuring there are clear boundaries in place between home and work.

If you require any advice regarding how to work from home, you can find useful resources at ParentClub.Scot and on the NHS website.


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