Reinventing town centres: A call for action

Author Nicholas Falk

In an attempt to halt any further decline of the UK’s town centres and High Streets, as could well happen without recovery post-Covid-19, this article suggests a radical approach, rather than business as usual, and proposes 5 steps to rapid recovery, which may be particularly helpful to mid-sized towns.

Date added 17 August 2021
Last updated 17 August 2021

This article opens with a dire reminder that the collapse of the Roman Empire, and a few other empires come to that, was down to an epidemic. A stark warning indeed that we should learn from history and not let it repeat itself as we currently face the prospect that some of our town centres could be literally ‘killed off’, and particularly smaller independent businesses closed down permanently, due to this current Covid-19 pandemic in the UK, where we hang onto our ‘centralised and rather amateurish system of governance, and belief that town centres are all about retail’.

The article considers a range of proposals introduced over the last 25 years in documents such as the 1995 Vital and Viable Town Centres good practice guide that backed up Planning Policy Guidance Note 6 on retailing’ at a time when 20% of town centres were declining and facing challenges from out-of-town retail developments; URBED’s Town Centre Partnerships calling for BIDs to be established in larger towns at a time when 12% of shops lay empty; the 1999 New Life for Smaller Towns report that focused on ‘local initiatives such as farmers markets and festivals’; while in 2005, Spreading the benefits of Town and City Centre Renewal producedfor the local government association set out a series of tools for conurbations such as Portsmouth and Leeds, so that smaller centres would not be left behind’; and in 2008, Over the Edge: town centres and the economy, offered a comparison of ‘50 centres in outer North and West London with centres such as Reading and Watford, which had broadened their role’.

There have been plenty of other developments in the last 25 years that have impacted on our high streets and town centres, including the rise of the evening economy and experience economy, prevalence of charity shops, and the use of the internet for online shopping. As the author explains:

New forms of retailing have continued to suck life out of high streets, helped by disempowered and depleted local authorities, aggressive developers, compliant financial institutions, a love of the new and a neglect of the old. The decline of manufacturing had released large areas of land on the edge of town centres. Whereas in Germany industrial sites were reforested or turned into lakes, for example around cities such as Dortmund in the Emscher Park in the Ruhrgebiet, in the UK brownfield development was subsidised, and activity dispersed. With greater choice, customers spend most where it is easiest, for example because of free parking.’

The ‘health check methodology' and a framework for developing strategies based on 'four As' – Attractions, Amenity, Access and Action, originally proposed in the late 1990s, has now been supplemented with a 5th 'A' for Agency, in an attempt to offer a focused, but phased recovery from this current pandemic, building on these ‘proven ways of reviving town centres’ that ‘could form the basis for “quality deals” to meet 21st century priorities such as public health and climate-proofing’. Namely:

  1. "Action Get Smart: Local authorities should use the power of digital technology to promote recovery. Mapping will help in setting priorities, for example identifying isolated and disadvantaged areas. Shops and eating places that offer good service should be highlighted. The URBED Trust’s new report 'Smart Cities: learning from the pioneers' shows what can be done by leaders such as Cambridge, Freiburg and Grenoble.
  2. Access Reallocate space: Priority should be given to ‘active travel’ (walking and cycling) which means ‘taming’ cars and promoting better integrated public transport. We could reallocate road space, as Copenhagen did, but also make short-term parking easier or ‘free after 3.00’. Local authorities could take back the bus services and promote better local rail services in Metro areas with integrated transport hubs as Barnsley has done. Funding could come from charging out-of-town stores for parking when the business rate is reassessed.
  3. Attractions Open empty shops: Redundant peripheral retail premises and surplus car parks could be redeveloped as homes, workplaces and community hubs or social spaces. Local authorities should take over key buildings if they lie empty too long, as happened in bomb damaged Comprehensive Development Areas after the Second World War.
  4. Amenity Promote special places: Streets and neighbourhoods with a distinct character, for example clusters of shops or services or waterfronts, should be boosted. Festivals and campaigns can help. Environmental upgrades could counter the lure of out-of-town retail parks but go beyond expensive facelifts that are like ‘putting lipstick on a corpse’. Spreading the benefits of regeneration must reignite civic pride as Stroud has done with its pioneering farmers market.
  5. Agency Re-empower local authorities: Most important of all, government must as a matter of urgency release the resources for town centres to revive by recasting parking charges and property taxes. The time is ripe to rethink what town centres are for, and for a multitude of pilot projects. Partnerships should be set up to promote new uses for underused space and lessons shared through Beacon Council Schemes."