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Bring back dancing bears!...…and other ways to revitalise our town centres
5 September 2019
Imagine you’re living in London in the Middle Ages. What does your local marketplace look like? What’s it for?
Grocers shouting about the freshness of their produce and merchants with the latest fashions? Food stalls? A travelling apothecary with a mystery superfood? A brewer scooping tankards into a barrel of mead for a bawdy crowd, who cheer at the dancing bear and public stocks?
Swap the bear and stocks for Sky Sports and ITV2 on a big screen and not much has changed. High streets and town centres are still crossroads, meeting points, places to experience novelty and socialise.
What has changed is their permanence. That marketplace has become set in stone. Stalls become timber sheds. Sheds become storied buildings. Buildings become streets, with the accompanying civic governance. Good infrastructure, transport links, housing, and cleaner, safer public realm. Before you know it, you’ve got the standard model of a high street, which hasn’t changed hugely since Victorian times.
Now our high streets and town centres are being challenged to accommodate new trends, and keeping that model preserved in aspic will be a barrier to change and growth. Whether it’s demand for larger office space, housing pressures, or the growth of online retailing and the 24h economy — changing patterns will require town centres to continue to adapt and evolve.
The high streets that succeed in the future are likely to be those with a strong mix of uses including leisure, experiential retail and public services, but their fundamental purpose won’t have changed. We can look beyond headlines prematurely announcing the death of the high street, and see that many retailers, restauranteurs, entertainers and other enterprises are already successfully innovating their physical presence to meet the demands of today’s Londoners.
But planning policy and the licensing regime are lagging behind and often prioritise the preservation of those structures set in stone, rather than allowing the marketplace to live its boisterous, noisy, colourful, best life. The revised National Planning Policy Framework is weak on retail and town centres, as is the draft New London Plan. And retailers are already running into enforcement issues across London, highlighting the need for greater flexibility in the way planning use classes work. For example, if your lifestyle outlet is half a furniture shop and half a café, with a sprinkling of joinery lessons, how should a borough treat it?
If we want change to happen with fewer casualties, we need to abandon rigid, last century, planning and licensing rules based on a 9 – 5, retail-dominated high street and enable the kind of vibrant live-work-eat-play, 24h places that consumers increasingly demand. Councils across the UK need help to embrace the change their residents really want, modernise their approach to planning and, where necessary, use their powers to deal with fragmented ownership which can make change difficult.
Of course, these issues are affecting high streets and town centres up and down the country. However, London is in a strong position to lead the charge with its diverse markets, existing base of innovation and early-adoption, and the Mayor’s track record in supporting new concepts in planning policy.
To explore the changes which need to be made, and identify the top priorities for London, we will run a series of roundtable workshops with members across the Autumn. Our first workshop will take place on 26th September, and will look at issues around managing mixed use in town centres, in particular the delicate relationship between commerce and housing. That will be followed by workshops on the following topics and dates:
8th Oct: Facilitating meanwhile uses
15th Oct: Masterplanning and redefining town centre boundaries
6th Nov: Flexibility as standard; reforming rigid use class definitions
27th Nov: Fragmented ownership of town centres and the role of CPOs
Date tbc: Licensing and a presumption in favour of commerce and activity
We will be seeking the views of a broad range of members with an interest in our high streets, from retail operators to developers and custodians of public realm. If you would like to take part in any of those workshops, please contact Julieta. We’re open to all ideas. Except the return of dancing bears. We’re more open-minded on the return of the stocks.
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