Market Essay. The evolution of our town centres

Martyn Saunders, Avison Young

Avison Young director for planning, development and regeneration Martyn Saunders takes a look at our town centres, and argues that they should adopt a locally relevant and authentic approach if they are to prosper after COVID-19.

Town centres were facing substantial challenges long before the arrival of COVID-19. Major retailers and smaller shops alike have been disappearing from our high streets, many of which are used as much as transport corridors as they are destinations for shopping or leisure. For several years, there has been talk of how town centres need to be reimagined, but the pandemic has made the need for action critical.

Over the past few weeks, town centre focus has been on reopening, with a £50m fund made available for councils to help their local high streets get safely back to business. However, looking beyond this, there are significant opportunities for the public and private sector to collaboratively reimagine the function of the high street.

The future of the UK’s town centres should be primarily focused on people. A locally relevant and authentic approach is paramount, as each town is different and therefore each response needs to reflect its unique context, circumstances and history. The range of retail, leisure and services will need to adapt to do this, providing new opportunities for local high streets.

Over the past months, we have seen a measurable increase in the number of people working from home and using nearby shops and services. The good news is that 70 per cent of those who shopped locally during lockdown say they will continue to do so in future (YouGov). However, with online sales increasing by over 10 per cent since February (ONS), people will need a variety of reasons to visit their high street. Greater consideration will be given to the mix of town centre activities, blending the commercial with cultural, community and civic amenities that are critical to people’s everyday lives. Free-to-use facilities — such as public open spaces, libraries, or outdoor gyms — will be vital if town centres are to be more inclusive and attract people from all backgrounds, particularly as we enter a recession and disposable income levels suffer.

‘Almost 40 per cent of employees are expected to continue working from home on a regular basis’

Many voices have touted housing-led regeneration as the saviour of town centres. However, in locations where many people remain in socially supported housing, this clearly isn’t viable. Increasing the number of people living in the centre will be beneficial from an economic and safety perspective, but the residential product must both cater to local needs and broaden the range of people living there. A diverse offer should include smaller apartments for young professionals, increased family housing, specialist provision for retired people, homes for key workers and new forms of live-work accommodation.

Almost 40 per cent of employees are expected to continue working from home on a regular basis once the COVID crisis is over (CIPD), rather than commuting to a central head office. This will drive local workspace demand, providing
an opportunity to enliven high streets with new shared and serviced office space, creative studios or makerspaces.
Rethinking how all these components will come together to create vibrant and accessible town centres is not an easy task, but true regeneration shouldn’t be. We need new thinking and also a step change in sustainable funding and finance to ensure, in the case of a second wave, we have the resources and experience to protect ourselves and those around us.

This market essay first appeared in NLQ Issue 44, published Sept 2020