The future of town centres and high streets
11th October 2019
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The regeneration of town centres and high streets is a hot topic in the UK. According to The Guardian, Britain’s high streets recorded 1,234 more store closures than openings in the first half of 2019. The retail industry is under extreme pressure as spending habits change to reflect a more digital world. Internet shopping is now a preferred way to shop for many, mainly due to its convenience. In recent years, the UK has seen major retailers fall into administration. Most recently the travel firm, Thomas Cook who had over 500 stores across the country.
There are many stories in the press about high streets falling into dilapidation and the effect this has on the local community. This raises the question, how can they be sustained? The residential sector has seen the most activity in 2019 of all construction sectors. In August 2019 the residential sector accounted for 42.5% of all contract awards. With the clear investment in housing, surely the houses need facilities.
During a seminar at UK Construction Week, Richard Cowell Assistant Director, Development Planning & Regeneration, Birmingham City Council explained Birmingham’s investment plans and how they are regenerating town centres in their area. They believe that the key to success is to evolve with consumer habits and lifestyles. They focus on new homes, new jobs, new infrastructure. A town centre should be a place where people spend more time and money in a multi-functional zone. This means mixing retail and leisure, creating social areas such as public squares. With restaurants, theatres, shops and green space. All whilst keeping the local identity and respecting the historical and cultural nature of their area.
Richard Roe, Director of Place, Economic Growth, Environment and Infrastructure, Trafford Council gave insight into the recent re-development of Altrincham town centre. In 2010, Altrincham was named the worst town centre in the country. Yet was surprisingly the only town in the top 10 that was not economically challenged. In 2010, Altrincham town centre had 30% vacancy rate despite being well served by public transport, bus, tram and train.
Trafford Council set a target to reduce store vacancy, boost footfall and build their vision of a ‘modern market town’. By increasing footfall, they could also increase dwell time and ultimately spend. There were many initial investments that helped boost Altrincham including, £19 million on a new transport interchange area, £17 million on a hospital and £900,000 on refurbing the market house. They also introduced a ‘town centre loan scheme’. This meant new start-ups could take out an interest free loan to set up their businesses on the high street, in turn helping reduce the vacancy rate of the shops to 7.2% today. So far, 23 businesses have used the loan scheme and have created 102 new jobs.
Following the successful regeneration of Altrincham town centre, Richard Roe believes that they learnt some valuable lessons. During the re-development, they decided that in order for it to work, the council needs to play a leadership role and the town needs a unique selling point (theirs was the market house which is now a lively food hall).
For the regeneration of town centres to be a success, local authorities need to learn from those that have turned a run-down traditional high street into a thriving social hub to suit changes in lifestyles. It’s all about evolving and transforming to bring communities together, to support sustain and invest in the future generations of the Great British high streets.
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