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How can town centres survive and prosper in an ecommerce age? The High Streets Expert Panel reports

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Town centres of the future need to attract local people to eat out, enjoy leisure activities and live, in developments that include affordable housing as well as shop – and this needs to be driven by the local communities themselves, a new report suggests.

High streets are changing as shoppers buy online, visit out of town retail centres and as “an exceptional number of well-established retail formats reach the end of their commercial lifecycle,” says Sir John Timpson, who chaired the High Streets Expert Panel, feeding into work being done by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. Today that panel unveiled its conclusions in the The High Street Report for the Government.

This has led to a rise in empty shops and falling visitor numbers – and, says Timpson, when we have more shops than we need, “It seems to us obvious that part of the retail estate should be converted into residential property where there is housing shortage”.

But he also sees hope in those towns that have worked to make town centres a place that people want to be. “By replanning their town centre space, inspirational local leaders, working in collaboration with all sections of their community have put a buzz back into their town centre, reducing the number of empty shops and increasing footfall,” he said.

Ways of organising

The report welcomes the creation of the High Streets Task Force, and suggests that one of its key roles should to speak on behalf of town centres, helping to remove blockages and to give feedback to central government. By sharing data, and helping to build networks and skills, the task force could help communities share what works. 

And it suggests that the £675m Future High Street Fund announced in the recent Budget should be provided on a shared funding basis in order to help improve areas including space management and transport links. 

Taking action

Short-term solutions, suggests the report, include ‘housekeeping’, such as removing graffiti, litter and improving the look of each shopping street – possibly through a National High Street Perfect Day. By matching empty shops – which can be “depressing eyesores that drag down shopping areas” – with community groups or social enterprises looking for space through an ‘open doors’ brokerage. Parking, it says, is an “important factor taken into account when people decide where to shop”. It adds: “In the short term, local authorities should review their parking provision to make sure that existing restrictions and charges are working to support accessibility to local businesses, encouraging footfall and attracting customers to town centres and high streets.”

A parallel report, High Street 2030: achieving change was published alongside The High Street Report, written by a team from the Institute of Place Management at Manchester Metropolitan University. It included workshops with local people in Holmfirth, Altrincham, Bristol, Shrewsbury, Aldershot and at the Teenage Market in Bolton.

Findings included the ideas that town centres need leadership and partnerships, to draw on local and expert knowledge, and to communicate – with residents, potential visitors and investors, while also seeking the input of young people and of place professionals. 

Looking to the future

The High Street 2030 report looked at what people want to see on the high street of 2030, and found that local people value independent traders – and recognise that each town has its own unique attractions. Nonetheless many factors are expected to remain constant. “Whilst high streets evolve, it is still people that are visiting them – and as humans, our motivations are remarkably stable over time,” said the report. “The consumer of 2030 imagines that they will want to eat and drink nice things, be in a pleasant environment, get access t the things they need, be attracted to something a bit different sometimes not waste too much time moving around and feel safe. Like the consumer of 1930, or even 1830…”

Commenting, Tom Ironside, director of business and regulation at the British Retail Consortium, said: “We welcome the High Street Report setting out the recommendations of the High Streets Expert Panel chaired by Sir John Timpson. The creation of the £675m High Street fund, announced at the Budget, to support the transformation of high streets and town centres is a welcome recognition of the need to support our commercial areas as they work to ensure that they remain relevant and commercially vibrant in the future.

“The final report contains strong advice on how to ensure that that funding is used to best effect, notably through the oversight of the High Streets Taskforce and practical measures for local leaders to implement in their local areas.

“At the same time, it is essential that the Government takes additional robust steps to provide real support to struggling high streets. Most importantly, wholesale reform of business rates is needed for our towns and high streets in order to thrive. The issue remains that the business rates burden is simply too high and disproportionately impacts the retail industry.”

Image: Fotolia

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