The future of town centres

    With the rapid and seismic changes to the retail sector, many of the region’s town centres have been caught off guard, resulting in a sharp increase in retail vacancy rates and a decline in footfall.
    The challenge facing many local communities is how to drag their town centres back from the brink to create modern, fit-for-purpose centres which are at the heart of the community, writes Alex Hirst, Lambert Smith Hampton, Southampton.

    According to the Office of National Statistics, online spend now accounts for around 20% of total retail spend, up from around 2.5% in 2006. With this trend unlikely to reverse, it’s fair to say that the high streets we remember from 10 or more years ago are firmly a thing of the past. The quantum of retail space required in town centres needs to be reduced to reflect this shift in consumer habits.

    As Sir John Timpson stated in his recent government paper, The High Street Report, the key is “Quite simply: making the town centre a place people want to be.” This means improving the public realm, creating quality places for people to live and work as well as shop, access leisure and dining facilities, medical and health centres and enjoy cultural experiences.

    While some retailer formats are either redundant or on the endangered list, most retailers are looking to innovate to entice customers through the doors by embracing technology, creating theatre and diversifying. However, they can only do so much and they need to be given the right environment to flourish. Therefore, increasing the reasons for people to use town centres and increase footfall is vitally important. There is no doubt that retail still has a vital role to play, but it needs to be a part of the bigger picture.

    The decline in the high street is increasingly opening up opportunities to regenerate town centres, allowing sites to be redeveloped for uses which match current demands and meet wider strategic goals such as new housing delivery. For example, central government has an ambitious target of delivering 300,000 new homes per year by 2020. This has led to the introduction of the Housing Delivery Test which now forms part of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) and enforces strict sanctions on local authorities which fail to deliver on their housing targets. It therefore seems that there are aligned benefits from bringing forward development on underutilised or redundant town centre retail sites, which are often more favourable for high-density schemes.


    There is also increased importance placed on regeneration of town centres by central government. In the recently published High Streets and Town Centres in 2030 report for The Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, there is clear emphasis on encouraging local authorities to develop town-centre masterplans and to use their powers to push for renewal of the town centres within their jurisdiction. As long as these plans are properly consulted on, with full and comprehensive engagement with the local community and the commercial sector, this is a step in the right direction to ensure a coherent demand-led plan for each individual town centre. No two towns are the same, each will have their own unique characteristics, opportunities and challenges.

    The high street isn’t dead, it’s in a transition period. It’s down to the local authorities and stakeholders to ensure the fundamentals are there to allow their communities to flourish.