Beyond retail: Redefining the shape and purpose of town centres

This report is authored by the Task Force set up in response to the Portas Review, comprising 20 individuals representing retailers, landlords, investors, local government, and retail and property sector trade organisations. It argues that town centres need to move beyond their traditional retail focus, providing a range of multifunctional uses. Although published in 2013, this key message is still relevant in understanding the present and future challenges high streets and town centres are facing.

Date added 17 August 2021
Last updated 17 August 2021

This 2013 report is authored by the Task Force set up in response to the Portas Review. It argues that town centres need to move beyond a retail focus, providing a range of multifunctional uses – a message still relevant today as high streets and town centres grapple with a range of challenges, including recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic. As the authors stress, “town centres have become too reliant upon retailing. The town centre function needs to be rebalanced to provide a broader range of alternative functions, including employment, commercial, leisure, community, residential, healthcare and education” (p. 4). The report begins by outlining the ‘perfect storm’ (p.12) the authors argue town centres have been finding themselves within over recent decades. The report then identifies several key issues town centres are facing, alongside illustrative case studies for each, with a series of potential solutions also recommended.

 The ‘perfect storm'

The report outlines key challenges faced by town centres:

  • Loss of town centre community and civic functions, with an over-focus on retail.
  • The expansion of out-of-town retail provision eroding town centre trade.
  • The economic crisis of 2008 and resultant downturns.
  • The ongoing rise in online shopping.
  • Lease expiries coming into fruition on shopping centres and retailers.
  • Rising town centre vacancy rates due to administrations and over-reliance on retail space.
  • Regional differences seen in affluence, spending power, and population growth.

Some key issues

Based on interviews and market trends, the report identifies key issues faced by town centres, some of which are summarised below:

1. Local leadership- strong leadership from local authority, in partnership with other local stakeholders, crucial for leading, planning and implementing change; but can be missing. Flexibility is key in responding to broader challenges, with local plans and visions under constant review.

2. Polarisation- retailers are increasingly selective about where they locate. Medium-sized towns are being squeezed, unable to attract the big retailers found in the more dominant centres, nor providing the convenience of smaller local centres. Their unique offer and purpose needs establishing.

3. Too much retail floorspace- many town centres are facing the challenge of having too much retail floorspace, given consumer behaviour changes and retailer administrations. A smaller, more focused retail core is needed, with alternative uses instead catered for (e.g. community and culture, residential, leisure, healthcare, education, employment etc.)

4. The wrong type of space- many towns studied do not have space meeting modern requirements. Linked to the above point, planning flexibility is needed to enable the conversion of retail units to other multi-functional purposes, resulting in mixed-use centres.

 Some key recommendations

The report provides several key recommendations for addressing the above issues:

  • A need to move beyond a traditional focus on retail, to providing a range of multi-functional uses, such as employment, leisure, and residential.
  • Strong and dynamic place leadership is important at the local level.
  • Better coordination between – and across - local authorities and communities to understand broader societal and consumer trends and impacts.
  • Less retail space needed as consumer preferences change, with greater flexibility in the planning system important.
  • The need for longer-term visions responsive to broader challenges and trends, and looking into the future.
  • Importance of integrating technology into town centres to enhance experience (e.g. social media and click-and-collect).

For related resources:

Please see here for the Build Back Better report from Bill Grimsey and team.

Please see here for the Institute of Place Management’s multi-functional centres report.

Please see here for Portas Review report based on an independent review of high streets and town centres.