The root of the current malaise in many of our high streets and town centres is partly to be found in a failure to understand the long-term consequences of decisions made in the past, but also – and perhaps more importantly – a failure to think differently in the present. It was this second point that was at the heart of the third London First roundtable in the What’s in Store: Transforming our High Streets series, recently hosted at Arup.
For too long, investors and developers have expected the retail cash cow to keep on giving. Too many councils and other decision makers have continued to roll out similar policies and thinking based on an approach that worked decades ago.
But times have changed. Londoners now have so much choice about where and how to spend their money. Not only do we need a compelling reason to visit the high street and spend time wandering, engaging and spending within town centres, but we deserve one, too. When leisure time and disposable income is at an all-time low, people want an escape; an escape they can connect to and afford. We want interaction, and to see, feel and be part of the local identity reflected in our town centres.
The town centres that have bucked the trend have realised this and acted differently. The solution can’t be summarised in one blog post, but there are two big areas that can be challenged to make a significant difference.
Firstly, we need to take an honest look at the boundaries of our town centres and admit that often they are too big. A more compact town centre is more accessible, and the constrained supply should mean less vacancy, more healthy competition, and fewer of the negatives that come with empty shops. We can then define and deliver a positive strategy for change in those areas that are no longer within the town centre – rather than preside over their gradual decline at the hands of a policy vacuum that is out of touch with reality.
Secondly, we know that diversity in the workplace yields significantly better financial results, yet we’ve not adopted the same thinking in our town centres. More diversity and locally relevant uses such as food and beverage, workspace, culture, entertainment and even residential need to flourish at the heart of town centres – not the edges. Prioritise vibrancy and interest, and residents, customers and visitors will be interested beyond the first visit. Traditional shops won’t save us, and neither will anachronistic town centre boundaries.
But in a system governed by the Use Classes Order, how do we stop the wrong type of use appearing? A hot food takeaway where you expected a more locally distinct offer? As well as policies allowing and encouraging a broader range of uses, perhaps we should start to embrace personal permissions more often – where we can be clear about to whom we are granting planning permission and for what specific use. It’s surely the natural consequence of neighbourhood planning that places can define more precisely which businesses they want to support and which they don’t. And which local people are more likely to use?
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