High Streets Task Force - Frameworks for high street and town centre action and renewal

Published 5 November 2019
Last updated 5 November 2019

The problems facing town centres and high streets are diverse and complex. Every place faces a different mix of issues but, fundamentally, high streets and town centres have the same purpose - to meet the needs of their catchment communities.

To do this they 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 behavior and other forces of change, it is time to reflect on what makes town centres and high streets successful now. The High Streets Task Force is pleased to present two frameworks that will help place leaders and partnerships make their towns or high streets sustainable.

These are the High Streets Task Force Top 25 Priorities for Vitality and Viability and High Streets Task Force 4Rs of Renewal. The Top 25 Priorities is a checklist of the actions/interventions that are associated with success (or which can act as barriers to progress).  The 4Rs of Renewal is a longer-term approach to regeneration. Both frameworks are explained in more detail in this article.


High Streets Task Force Top 25 Priorities for Vitality and Viability

In 2014, the Institute of Place Management identified 201 factors that influence the vitality and viability of the high street or other1, traditional, retail agglomerations, like town centres. Over the summer the High Streets Task Force updated this work and identified 36 new factors that researchers had found also 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. All these factors will be influencing the decision making of local place leaders and partnerships, therefore all 237 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?
  2. 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

                                                                                                                                                                                                          Table 1: High Streets Task Force 25 Priorities 

Interpreting the table

First, priorities in CAPITALS represent more than one factor. Those in lower case represent a single factor.

Second, the nearer the top of the table the higher the priority 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). 

Finally, the priorities that are marked with an Asterix in the table 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.

NON-RETAIL OFFER is a new priority for 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 for 2019. 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 for 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 for 2019. 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 planned2.

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.


How will the High Streets Task Force help me use this framework?

We are developing a number of products and services that will enable place leaders and partnerships to apply the Top 25 Priorities framework in their town or on their high street. There will be interactive e-learning that will help explain the Priorities. This will be supplemented by guidance that will enable you to audit and assess your place. There will also be on-line diagnostics to help you identify which Priorities can be tackled, based on the time and other resources you have available. Finally, the High Streets Task Force Repository will link to lots of resources, reports and articles when you want to learn more about how to design interventions to address different priorities.

All the tools, support and guidance available from the High Streets Task Force are designed to help you assess your place, diagnose issues, take action and then evaluate.

Example 1:

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-7pm opening could then be trialed (act). After 3 months, daily footfall figures may show a significant increase (evaluate) and the new opening hours adopted.

Example 2:

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).


High Streets Task Force 4R’s of Renewal

Whilst the High Streets Task Force 25 Priorities are a useful framework for action, it is not particularly strategic. In other words, it is a good summary of everything you might possibly be getting on with, but there is no attempt to group or structure the priorities. Nevertheless, it is really good at identifying some quick wins and encouraging action to happen fast.

For place leaders and partnerships that want to take a more strategic, or longer-term approach to transformation, then the High Streets Task Force has another framework that consists of four strategic approaches to renewal – repositioning, reinventing, rebranding and restructuring.

Previous research and pilot projects3 have demonstrated that this 4Rs framework provides some structure to an incredibly complex process.  It distinguishes between the processes of analysis and decision making (repositioning), effecting change (reinventing), communication (rebranding) and governance/spatial planning (restructuring).


In some locations, there is a poor understanding of the catchment, the challenges and trends impacting on the place as well as a lack of basic data on which to base decisions. In these instances, a strategy of repositioning is sensible. This entails taking time to collect and analyse data and information, as well as develop appropriate visions and strategies that can get widespread buy-in.


Other places have the data they need and sensible plans for how the town needs to change to better serve its catchment communities, but nothing is actually happening in the town. A process of reinvention is needed. Transformation needs to start! This might be through temporary interventions. For example, a major pedestrianisation scheme may have stalled because of a lack of investment. However, temporary road closures may still have a similar effect, at least for part of the week.


Sometimes there are good plans, based on good evidence and these are being brought to life. The town is both repositioning and reinventing – but catchment perceptions have not changed. People are still negative about the town and that’s when a process of rebranding may be needed. Rebranding includes better stakeholder communications, not just marketing and PR activities.


Finally, some towns and high streets just seem to be stuck in a state of inertia around decision making or, when decisions are made and action taken, it doesn’t have the impact that was expected. This can be tackled through a process of restructuring. Either the governance and management mechanisms in the town need changing or, large scale spatial planning is needed to address some structural problem – for example the town is too fragmented and needs to be restructured around a centre of gravity that is not the town’s current designated core.


How will the High Streets Task Force help me use this framework?

We are developing a number of products and services that will enable place leaders to apply this framework in their town or on their high street. There will be interactive e-learning that will help explain the 4Rs. There will also be on-line diagnostics to help you identify which renewal approach is best for you, based on an assessment of what is blocking your transformation, what you have already achieved and the time and other resources you have available. You will also be able to produce your own version of the 4Rs Framework, choosing which Priorities align with what renewal approaches in your town. Finally, the High Streets Task Force Repository will link to lots of resources, reports and articles when you want to learn more about how to work through each renewal approach and suitable evaluations.


How do the two frameworks link?

We know that is it often important to start on some quick wins, so place leaders and partnership may start identifying priorities that they want to tackle. However, the momentum that is built after some initial success can be leveraged into a more strategic and long-term approach to transformation. To aid this process, we have aligned each of the 25 Priorities to the renewal strategy it is most frequently associated with (Figure 1). This is not an exact science. for example, we have aligned crime and security to rebranding because, in our experience, it is often the perceptions of crime, not the crime rates themselves, that are the issue. We would encourage place leaders and partnership to construct their own local versions of the 4R's framework fo that you can align your own 25 Priorities with the right strategic renewal approaches, in your town.

Examples of implementing the frameworks in practice


Place leaders in Ashford used the 25 Priorities as a framework to discuss change in the town centre. In particular, the 25 Priorities were used in workshops as a way to engage a range of businesses, residents, local politicians as well as council departments in activities that evaluated the progress that had already been made, as well as identify what needed to happen next. “People rightly care about their town, but we found everyone had a different opinion on what was going wrong and what the solution was” explains Graham Galpin, former Cabinet Member for Town Centres at Ashford Borough Council. “Using the 25 Priorities enabled us to be much more objective in our decision making as well as pat ourselves on the back for what we had done already”.  Ashford had already made a significant investment in buying a run-down shopping centre in the town centre. Its strategy to attract independents and leisure operators into these retail units was innovative and broke down barriers to entry for a more diverse mix of businesses that could successfully activate the space. The investment also improved the appearance of the town. “We had achieved a lot but there is still more to do, and the 25 Priorities are helping to guide the future work programme in the town.” added Graham.


Altrincham is well known as a town that has successfully regenerated, winning the title of England’s best high street in 2018. Regeneration was a long process though, that took many years to bear fruit. Even when substantial physical improvements had been made in the town centre, the town was not attracting a significant proportion of local people, because they had very negative perceptions of the town, and talked it down. “The 4Rs confirmed that we had a branding problem” said Penny Bell, former Principal Town Centre Officer at Trafford Council, the local authority responsible for Altrincham. “We had come such a long way making great improvements in the town but that wasn’t enough, we still had to convince people that the town had changed”. The rebranding strategy was centred around the idea of Altrincham being “a modern market town”, this also acted as an umbrella for many of the other projects and plans that were going on in the town, including the reinvention of the historic market into a food hall. “Successful town centre regeneration takes a long time and relies on lots of different people and organisations pulling in the same direction” said Penny, “a rebranding approach makes you think about stakeholder communications as well as the external perceptions people have of your town”.


1 https://www.emerald.com/insight/content/doi/10.1108/JPMD-03-2017-0032/full/html

2 Priorities in CAPITALS contain more than one factor. Priorities marked with * are new or amended for 2019 Factors in italics are new for 2019

3 https://ipm-members.mkmapps.com/media/83522/Policy-Briefing-New-retail-centre-classification.pdf

4 https://www.emerald.com/insight/content/doi/10.1108/JPMD-03-2017-0032/full/html