25 'Vital and Viable' Priorities

Research has identified 25 priorities for attractive high streets that create long-term success. This Framework can be used by place leaders to prioritise action.

What is a 'Vital and Viable' high street?

The problems facing town centres and high streets are diverse and complex. As well as recovering from COVID-19, every place faces its own set of issues but, fundamentally, high streets and town centres have the same purpose - to meet the needs of their catchment communities.

To meet the needs of their catchment communities high streets and town centre have to be both vital (full of reasons for people to visit) and viable (attractive to both visitors and investors in the longer term). Government planning policy for town centres has referred to vitality and viability since 1993, however with the structural changes in retail, the financial crash, changing consumer behaviour and COVID-19, it is important to reflect on what makes town centres and high streets successful now.

237 Factors influence the success of our high streets

In 2014, the Institute of Place Management identified 201 factors that influence the vitality and viability of the high street or other, traditional, retail agglomerations, like town centres. Over the summer of 2019 researchers updated this work for the High Streets Task Force and identified 36 new factors that, potentially, may impact upon the performance of high streets/town centres.

From crowd funding to hipster stores, the last five years have seen some changes on our high streets, which have been further impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. All these factors could be influencing the decision making of local place leaders and partnerships, therefore all factors have been reviewed by a panel of experts in place management to establish:

  1. How much influence each factor has on the vitality and viability of town centres/high streets? In other words, what matters?
  1. How much local control there is over each factor? In other words, what can you do about it?

By calculating a score for each factor, based on both influence and control this has enabled the High Streets Task Force to identify the Top 25 Priorities that local place leaders and place leaders should be focusing on, in their quest for vitality and viability and to have sustainable high streets that meet the needs of their catchment communities. As part of our method, we have grouped the top-rated factors into 25 priorities, presented in Table 1, below.

Priority Component Factors
ACTIVITY* Opening hours; footfall; shopping hours; evening economy
RETAIL OFFER Retailer offer; retailer representation
VISION & STRATEGY Leadership; collaboration; area development strategies
EXPERIENCE Centre image; service quality; visitor satisfaction; familiarity; atmosphere
APPEARANCE Visual appearance; cleanliness; ground floor frontages
PLACE MANAGEMENT Centre management; shopping centre management; Town Centre Management (TCM); place management; Business Improvement Districts (BIDs)
NECESSITIES Car-parking; amenities; general facilities
Anchors* Presence of anchors - which give locations their basic character and signify importance
NON-RETAIL OFFER Attractions; entertainment; non-retail offer; leisure offer
MERCHANDISE Range/Quality of goods; assortments; merchandising
WALKING Walkability; pedestrianisation/flow; cross-shopping; linked trips; connectivity
PLACE MARKETING Centre marketing; marketing; orientation/flow
NETWORKS & PARTNERSHIPS WITH COUNCIL Networking; partnerships; community leadership; retail/tenant trust; tenant/manager relations; strategic alliances; centre empowerment; stakeholder power; engagement
ACCESSIBLE Convenience; accessibility
DIVERSITY Range/quality of shops; tenant mix; tenant variety; availability of alternative formats; store characteristics; comparison/convenience; chain vs independent; supermarket impact; retail diversity; retail choice
ATTRACTIVENESS Sales/turnover; place attractiveness; vacancy rates; attractiveness; retail spend; customer/catchment views; Construction of out-of-town centre
MARKETS* Traditional markets; street trading
RECREATIONAL SPACE Recreational areas; public space; open space
BARRIERS TO ENTRY Barriers to entry; landlords
Safety/Crime A centre KPI measuring perceptions or actual crime including shoplifting
ADAPTABILITY Retail flexibility; retail fragmentation; flexibility; store/centre design; retail unit size; store development; rents turnover
LIVEABLE Multi/mono-functional; liveability; personal services; mixed use
REDEVELOPMENT PLANS* Planning blight; regeneration
Functionality* The degree to which a centre fulfils a role – e.g. service centre, employment centre, residential centre, tourist centre
INNOVATION* Opportunities to experiment; retail Innovation

Interpreting the priorities

Priorities in CAPITALS represent more than one factor. Those in lower case represent a single factor.

Priorities nearer to the top of the table have a higher score.

However this does not necessarily mean all towns/high streets need to focus on ACTIVITY before they tackle INNOVATION. Rather, these 25 Priorities are a framework by which place leaders can assess the current performance of their high street/town centre. The results will enable them to diagnose which priorities are likely to be have the most impact – and then act through making an appropriate intervention. It is then important to evaluate, to know if interventions work (or not).

Priorities marked with an Asterix are either new or amended for 2019. ACTIVITY now includes footfall as it is important to measure activity on the street, not just consider when the business and other services are open. ANCHORS now refer to universities, hospitals, anything that is attracting a significant amount of people to a location – not just anchor stores.

Complete our e-learning

The High Streets Task Force has developed a range of online support that will enable place leaders and partnerships to apply the Top 25 Priorities in their town or on their high street.

  • E-Learn - 25 priorities for vital and viable high streets
    [Go to resource]

  • 'Evidence on a page' - expanded detail on each priority
    [Go to resources - first 10 of 25 available now]

In addition to the resources above, the Task Force is developing tools that will enable you to audit and assess your place. This will include an on-line diagnostic to help you identify which Priorities can be tackled, based on the time and other resources you have available. 

New and important priorities for 2020

NON-RETAIL OFFER is a new priority established in 2019. Previously, any part of a town’s offer that wasn’t retail was included in DIVERSITY – but as the non-retail offer becomes more important to many high streets then it is becomes as a priority in its own right.

MARKETS are also new. They are our oldest form of collective retailing, however, the transformation of markets into food halls and other ways in which markets are reinventing demonstrates how they are now improving the vitality and viability of many towns.

REDEVELOPMENT PLANS are another new priority established in 2019. Unfortunately, some town centre regeneration has been misguided and, after the financial crash, other plans have stalled, leading to situations of planning blight, both of which have a negative impact on town centres and high streets.

FUNCTIONALITY is another new priority. Functionality refers to the various purposes that towns serve. In some locations certain functions dominate but others have more of a multifunctional economy. Research has demonstrated that understanding these functions is important before visions, strategies and other interventions are planned.

Finally, INNOVATION, or opportunities to experiment, is recognised as a priority in 2019. Successful transformation is not just dependent on traditional investment and development, it can also be kick-started by pop-up shops, festivals, events, and community use of redundant retail space. The message here is that place leaders and partnerships need to be creative and experiment. Refiguring town centres for social distancing is part of this innovation process - with the successful interventions likely to become a more permanent feature.

Example - declining footfall

A town may be suffering declining footfall. It could measure levels of activity, throughout the day and evening (assess). By comparing activity levels through the day with the number of commuters that travel out of the area the conclusion may be drawn that the shops and other services are not open when a significant portion of the catchment are able to visit them (diagnose). After undertaking this assessment and diagnosis, a pilot of 11am-7 pm opening could then be tried (act). After 3 months, daily footfall figures may show a significant increase (evaluate) and the new opening hours adopted.

Example - high vacancy rates

Conversely, a large market town, that has historically been an important comparison-shopping town, may have high vacancy rates. Further assessment of the problems reveals that many landlords are inexperienced in dealing with independent or local businesses, therefore their properties are empty as the national chains are concentrating in bigger cities. In this case, the diagnosis identifies INNOVATION and breaking down BARRIERS TO ENTRY as the priorities that need tackling first. The local Business Improvement District takes action, working with landlords and agents to work up an incubation scheme, using vacant property, for suitable would-be tenants. This incubation scheme also includes some training and support for the new businesses, helping successful ones expand into other properties. After a year of the scheme, the vacancy rate in the town has been halved (evaluation).