Evolution or revolution … the challenge of delivering future high streets

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.

Addressing complexity

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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Parking charges and the death of the high street

By Heather Cameron

“High streets are not just about shops; we have to consider what local people want” (Mary Portas)

Councils called for a scrap in parking charges recently following reports of booming trade in Cardigan, Mid-Wales, after pay-and-display machines were broken by vandals. Shopkeepers reported huge increases in turnover, with some up as much as 50%.

Three years on from her independent review of high streets, Mary Portas has said that the main source of dissatisfaction with our high streets is – you’ve guessed it – parking charges. Portas highlights research by Deloitte that shows 34% of us are unhappy with the cost of parking to access high streets otherwise regarded as convenient. The research suggested that consumers want to see more of:

  • Free parking (60%)
  • Choice of stores (59%)
  • Independent stores (57%)
  • Specialists e.g butchers (50%)
  • Parking spaces (48%)

Portas also notes that the more progressive local authorities are providing free parking at certain times or are freezing parking charges.

This begs the question – should parking charges be removed or changed to aid our declining high streets?

Decline of the high street?

It’s no secret that since the growth in large out-of-town shopping centres, local high street stores have struggled to compete. Business owners in Cardigan suggested that the temporary removal of parking restrictions “levelled the playing field” when it comes to competing with these shopping centres where parking is often free.

Despite efforts to regenerate high streets and make them more appealing to consumers, the latest BDO high street sales tracker  recorded a further month of decline in August, with sales falling by 4.3% compared to the same month last year – the worst performance since November 2008.

Much of this can be attributed to an increase in spending on leisure activities, including holidays abroad. The strong pound hasn’t helped the high streets as consumers are spending more on items abroad while tourists are more reluctant to spend.

As it is often cheaper to shop online and pay for delivery charges than it is to pay for parking for a couple of hours, it is little wonder people are less likely to shop on the high street. The threat of parking tickets is also a deterrent for many.

Earlier this year, high streets minister, Marcus Jones, claimed “unfair parking fines push up the cost of living and undermine high streets”.

So what is being done to address this issue?

New parking initiatives

Many of the Portas pilots trialled parking initiatives to bring more people to the high street. The ‘free after three’ initiative is one that has been introduced in a number of places since and has shown to have made a difference. Visitor numbers increased in Salisbury following a six month experimental period of the initiative. Nearly double the number of cars used the car park per week, making the town noticeably busier.

Just last month, Chippenham launched its own ‘free after three’ pilot initiative on Thursdays to support local businesses. It’s hoped that this will help shops and offices as well as improve the evening economy.

Rotherham Borough Council, for the fifth consecutive financial year in 2014/15, planned for no increases in the cost of parking. Portas suggests that it is no coincidence that 55% of shoppers in the town centre came by car, compared to 29% in 2009.

A way forward

Despite the evidence in support of free parking in town centres, it is also something that could easily be met with opposition. With calls to reduce car use and tackle emissions from vehicles, particularly in larger towns and cities, a balance needs to be struck.

And free parking alone is unlikely to save the high street. As Portas argues, a combination of actions are required. She suggests that while moves have been made in the right direction, more commitment and action is needed from government, specifically on:

  • Access and parking
  • Reforming business rates
  • Landlord registers
  • Long term support for Town Teams and simplification of the process of forming BIDs.

Clearly, parking is an important part of the picture in our smaller towns and cities, particularly in an age where convenience is key. If our high streets are to be viable, it’s something that councils need to think about carefully as part of a strategic approach to local economic development, rather than only as a way to manage traffic and generate revenue for traffic improvements.


 

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Is the night-time economy waking up our town centres?

By Heather Cameron

With the extent of town centre decline in recent years, the potential of the night-time economy in the UK has arguably never been more important. Earlier this year, a new industry organisation launched to highlight the importance of nightlife to the economy – the Night Time Industries Association (NTIA). And towns and cities across the UK are continuing to gain Purple Flag accreditation, recognising excellence in the management of town and city centres at night.

Driving economic growth

Our new member briefing on managing the night-time economy highlights its potential value and the challenges which need to be addressed. It explores good practice in planning, managing and supporting the night-time economy.

The evening and night-time economy is an important driver of tourism, leisure and business growth within our towns and cities. It consists of a wide range of activity in town and city centres between the hours of 5pm and 6am, including pubs, clubs, cafes, restaurants, retail, cinemas, theatres or concerts, meeting friends or attending community events. Balancing the competing demands of economic development, public safety and quality of life can be a challenge however and requires effective partnership working and engagement with residents and businesses.

Benefits and challenges

Until recently, the value of night-time activity has often been overlooked. The first research ever to look at the value and reach of the UK’s evening and night-time economy was undertaken by TBR and night-time economy specialists MAKE in 2010. It estimated the total value of the night-time economy in the UK at an impressive £66bn, employing 1.3 million people. This figure is estimated to be about £70bn now, representing about 4% of Britain’s economic output.

The NTIA’s new report emphasises the significant economic and social contribution the night-time economy makes to the UK. According to the report, there were 1.5bn day visits to the UK in 2014, 300 million of which had a meal or night out as their focus. Spending on night-time related activities represented 21% of the £52bn spent on day visits.

Offering a range of cultural activities can attract a more diverse population to urban centres later into the evening, including families and older people. It can also enhance their international appeal.

Manchester City Council recently highlighted the benefits of the city’s 24 hour offering. It estimated that 150,000 people visit the city centre each weekend to take advantage of its nightlife.

London is set to join New York, Chicago, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Berlin and Sydney, by offering a new Night Tube service. It has been estimated that the new service will lead to a gross impact of 1,965 permanent jobs, with the net additional output equating to an additional £360m.

Despite the obvious potential, the NTIA argues that regulation and a culture of fear remains a barrier to realising this potential. Negative perceptions related to crime, anti-social behaviour and alcohol-related violence are often highlighted by the media as typical features of the night-time experience.

Alcohol-related anti-social behaviour has long been recognised as a challenge for the night-time economy. Nevertheless, such behaviour has actually been in decline in recent years. Recorded crime is currently 38% lower than in 2002-03 and, of all the incidents, fewer than one in five occurs in pubs.

Regulatory environment and planning

Indeed the last decade has seen much progress in the organisation, regulation and control of town centres after hours.

The Licensing Act 2003 and Licensing (Scotland) Act 2005 abolished set licensing hours in England and Wales, and Scotland in an attempt to make the system more flexible and reduce problems of drinking and disorder associated with a standard closing time. The Act gave licensing authorities new powers over licensed premises, whilst giving local people more of a say in individual licensing decisions, in the hope that in the longer term its provisions, together with other government initiatives, would help to bring about a more benign drinking culture.

With regard to alcohol policy, various initiatives have been used to engage the industry in local partnerships, including: Best Bar None, Pubwatch, Community Alcohol Partnerships and Purple Flag. Since Doncaster introduced the Best Bar None scheme in 2006, violent crime has fallen by over 40% in the town centre in the evening.

Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) have also been important. The first BID dedicated to the night-time economy was created in Nottingham in 2006. By 2009, Nottingham had become a Beacon City for its work on managing the night-time economy, achieving Purple Flag status the following year, which it has successfully retained every year since 2010. The BID’s budget, paid for by a 1% levy on business rate payers, raised about £260,000 a year. It supported events like the food and drinks festival, paid for taxi marshals on Friday and Saturday nights, introduced and supported Best Bar None and commissioned murals for vacant units in the city centre.

Newcastle’s BID, NE1, launched the ‘Alive after Five’ initiative in 2010 aimed at encouraging greater use of the city centre in the early evening gap between the day-time and night-time city. It is estimated to be worth £350m and has attracted an additional 7.9m additional visitors in to the city post 5pm.

Benefits outweigh the costs

As our briefing concludes, although there are inevitable costs involved in developing the night-time economy, the evidence suggests that these are outweighed by the benefits. Research undertaken in Sydney shows that the annual principal costs of managing the night-time economy are hugely outweighed by the turnover of businesses at the heart of the city – $127m and $2.7bn dollars respectively.


The Idox Information Service can give you access to a wealth of further information on economic development – to find out more on how to become a member, contact us.

Further reading

Forward into the night: the changing landscape of Britain’s cultural and economic life. (2015) Night Time Industries Association

‘Alive after five’: constructing the neoliberal night in Newcastle upon Tyne, IN Urban Studies, Vol 52 No 3 Feb 2015

Fear of crime and affective ambiguities in the night-time economy, IN Urban Studies, Vol 52 No 3 Feb 2015, pp439-455

Evolving high streets: resilience and reinvention – perspectives from social science. (2014) University of Southampton

The ‘civilising’ effect of a ‘balanced’ night-time economy for ‘better people’: class and the cosmopolitan limit in the consumption and regulation of alcohol in Bournemouth, IN Journal of Policy Research in Tourism, Leisure and Events, Vol 6 No 1-3 Mar-Nov 2014, pp172-185

After dark (London’s night-time economy), IN Economist, Vol 413 No 8907 4-10 Oct 2014, p32

Impact of the night tube on London’s night-time economy. (2014) Transport for London

Planning to reduce the negative effects of the late night economy: Cardiff – a case study. (2014) Design Out Crime Group Wales

Charging to support the night-time economy, IN MJ, 10 Apr 2014, p21