So what have we learnt?
Notwithstanding the impact of: long-term market, consumer and technological trends on the retail and leisure sectors; the pandemic; and the current cost-of-living crisis – it is definitely not all “doom and gloom” for our town centres. I still honestly think that we are now entering into one of the most exciting and creative periods in their long and turbulent history. What this research report has optimistically referred to as a town centre renaissance.
But don’t just take my word for it.
Despite the economic and political headwinds, some 45% of respondents to this year’s survey were either still “optimistic” or “very optimistic” about the future. This is only down slightly from 49% at the start of 2022; and higher than the 36% in 2020 (although this was at the height of the pandemic). And a smaller proportion in 2023 were “pessimistic” or “very pessimistic” (21%) about the future compared with last year (27%).
What is clear is that our high streets, towns and shopping centres have a vital role to play in the country’s economic recovery and growth; and the impact of the pandemic has shown us that they are valued for more than just their shops and services. Meaning, for the first time in a long time, retail is not the solution to the many issues and challenges our centres are facing.
Although we know there is no “one size fits all” approach to town centre regeneration, there are a mix of actions and interventions that, taken together, can help build back confidence, resilience and recovery.
The starting point for successful and sustainable town centre regeneration depends on the establishment of joined-up leadership and governance structures. Whether this involves setting up dedicated Town Boards, &/or aligning existing town centre place-making bodies will depend on local circumstances, but the overriding objective has to be the formation and development of strong and meaningful collaboration and partnership-working.
Communities and stakeholders need to be represented and involved in the decision-making process from the outset. Where possible, communities should be part of originating ideas, and involved in the early setting of objectives and visions, rather than as an “after-thought”. As the Government itself has stated: “If communities feel heard and are invested in the success of project(s), this should ultimately help develop a sense of pride and connectivity to place and community. And for some towns, the existing sense of pride and identity in their town can be a valuable resource for change”. (1)
Aligned with this is the need to develop robust evidence-based and deliverable regeneration and investment strategies that balance high-quality visions and place-making initiatives, with critical commercial, environmental and social value objectives. The best strategies will help inform the timing, funding and delivery of regeneration projects. And the “gold-standard” strategies will be those that are flexible enough to respond to dynamic consumer, economic and market trends.
As I say, there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach or strategy, but some of the critical initiatives common to most places will include:
- Repurposing &/or replacing “old and tired” retail and office space with a more viable mix of uses, including a blend of civic, education, healthcare, flexible workspace, leisure and commercial.
- Providing the right mix of quality homes and affordable homes in the right locations, at the right time, that appeal to different socioeconomic and age groupings. This will help to support more diverse and dynamic town centre economies.
- Creating beautiful, green and attractive places that are valued and loved by everyone.
- Promoting markets, events and festivals that appeal to local people, and, in some cases, help to attract a wider visitor and tourist audience.
- Building on the 10-15 minute “walkable neighbourhood concept”, and planning for more active and sustainable travel patterns.
- Restoring civic and community pride in centres.
The delivery of these and many other initiatives will not only require effective and meaningful collaboration, partnership working and engagement from day one; it will also require significant investment of time, resources and funds from both the public and private sectors.
In terms of investment, we know that some centres and places have been lucky enough to benefit from the Government’s series of capital-backed funds over the last four years, including the Future High Street Fund, Towns Fund, Levelling Up Fund and UK Shared Prosperity Fund. But, as we head towards an election in 2024, hopefully lessons can be learnt on all political sides, and the more traditional approaches to funding can be reviewed and improved.
For starters, funds need to be more transparent, more joined-up, and allocated to areas based on robust evidence of need, rather than via a costly competitive bidding process and/or political agendas. There is also a need for more long-term, patient regeneration funds that are not fixed by political timetables. As we all know, regeneration does not happen overnight, it can often take generations. Kings Cross is a prime example of this; and it also happens to be the Government’s exemplar regeneration model for levelling up that it is seeking to replicate elsewhere across the UK. This may be where Homes England has a critical role to play, working in partnerships with the public and private sectors to help drive regeneration and housing delivery, and create high-quality homes and thriving places.
Hopefully devolution and the decentralisation of decision-making powers, resources and funds to local government(s) as part of the Government’s levelling up agenda will also go some way to creating the conditions for more strategic and sustainable funding decisions that will help maximise economic, social and environmental benefits for all places.
It will be interesting to see how Homes England’s role and the devolution agenda has evolved by the time of our next research survey in 2024.
In conclusion, successful future centres will be those that help to promote health and well-being, tackle deprivation and the climate crisis, and provide attractive, viable and entertaining places where people of all ages want to live, work, shop, study, play and socialise. Above all, they should be vibrant, fun and safe places …. restored once again as the “beating hearts and souls of our communities”.
Want to know more?
Access the full report here.