21st Century High Streets: What next for Britain’s town centres?

This 2012 report from the British Retail Consortium focuses on six key priority areas for high streets and town centres: unique sense of place; attractive public realm; planning for success; accessibility; safety and security; and supportive regulatory and fiscal regimes. It provides best practice examples and policy recommendations at both national and local levels to ensure high streets flourish in the 21st Century.

Date added 12 October 2021
Last updated 12 October 2021

*This resource is more than 5 years old but has been included as it contains information that is still relevant and useful*

This report from the BRC focuses on six key priority areas for high streets and town centres to flourish in the 21st Century. The report is structured around these six areas and for each the authors outline an overview of that issue, progress to date, priorities going forwards, who can make a difference, delivery partners, recommendations, and best practice case studies:

1. Unique sense of place

Overview of issue: The report suggests that "British high streets need to start thinking like brands. What makes them different? Why would people want to visit? What is their unique selling point?” (p. 8). The authors also argue the growing localism agenda can provide opportunities for local communities to get involved with shaping their centre’s offering and vision to create a sense of unique place to attract consumers.

Recommendations: High streets need to develop a unique identity which differentiates the place and should be effectively marketed. Consumers need a reason to choose to visit a high street and should be encouraged to do so through things like themed events and loyalty schemes. Existing strengths should be built on, such as heritage assets or natural features.

Featured case studies: Belfast city centre, Ipswich Waterfront, Falmouth’s 'Spirit of the Sea’, Darlington BID.

2. Attractive public realm

Overview of issue: The report explains that, "if high streets are to attract investment and maintain viability, safety and aesthetics are priorities... people care about where they go, the places they visit” (p. 12), since consumers have more options than ever before as to where to visit. A collaborative approach can be taken to creating an attractive public realm where people want to spend time and feel safe, including local authorities, local communities, BIDs, local enterprise partnerships, neighbourhood forums, retailers, and heritage organisations.

Recommendations: Attractive public spaces should be created and effectively managed. Strong community support is also important for maintaining these spaces. Things like minimising street clutter, clear and effective signage, greenery, and lighting can help.

Featured case studies: Leicester Square, Bath BID, Keep Scotland Beautiful, Alsager Town Centre.

3. Planning for success

Overview of issue: The report explains that, “just as all good businesses need a vision backed by a carefully considered strategy, so do our high streets. High streets need to plan for success. They need to create destinations that attract footfall, investment and ensure long term viability” (p. 16). The authors explain that local plans are important for driving investment to high streets and town centres.

Recommendations: A clear vision needs to be co-created to ensure the high street maintains viable retail destinations and local interests are met, with cooperation with neighbouring authorities important to ensure a wider strategic approach to development. There needs to be a diverse mix of retail and leisure that meets local needs.

Featured case studies: Glasgow’s Buchanan Quarter, Eastgate Leeds, Plymouth’s West End.

4. Accessibility

Overview of issue: According to the report, “town centres have traditionally been the most accessible locations for consumers but increasing car ownership, changes to the planning system and changing consumer demands have meant this is often no longer the case” (p. 20). In order to drive footfall to high streets and town centres, car parking needs to be affordable and accessible, as well as ensuring public transport is as well, to help with sustainability issues. There also need to be efficient processes for retail deliveries to ensure access to goods.

Recommendations: Local authorities and partnerships need to ensure consumers can easily and affordably access high streets. Accessibility should be managed holistically and responsively. Delivery restrictions also need to be reduced where possible to improve efficiency and reduce daytime congestion.

Featured case studies: Bristol Broadmead, Risborough Area Community Bus, Wanstead High Street, Chester, Ballymena Town Centre.

5. Safety and security

Overview of issue: The report argues that “high streets must be safe and secure. Crime and perceptions of crime influence consumer choices, and have a significant impact on retail investment and the continued viability of retail and leisure localities” (p. 25). Things like anti-social behaviour should be tackled, with police working in collaboration with the retail sector to address business crime to ensure safe and welcoming high streets.

Recommendations: High streets must be safe and secure, with local police and police and crime commissioners working with retailers to identify sources of crime and forming plans to tackle them. Retail crime and anti-social behaviours should be deterred and reporting of crime encouraged.

Featured case studies: Greater Manchester, Falkirk Safe Zone, Liverpool City Centre.

6. Supportive regulation

Overview of issue: The report suggests “high taxes and restrictive regulations are holding our high streets back. The cost of operating on the high street is simply too high to make it viable for many bricks and mortar businesses. Business Rates are a primary concern for retailers” (p. 28). It is argued that excessive costs and red tape should be reduced to help businesses invest and grow in town centres and high streets.

Recommendations: The cost of operating and investing in town centres and high streets should be reduced, for example through national government reducing and reforming the business rates system, through providing local authorities with power to offer business rates discounts, and supporting BIDs.

Featured case studies: Croydon Business Rates Grant, Holyhead Empty Shops Initiative, Newcastle Alive After Five.