Can we regenerate and transform our towns by putting people at the centre?

The combined impact of Covid and on-line shopping on our town centres and those working in retail is clear as it is devastating and the evidence continues to mount with the demise of Arcadia and Debenhams to name but a few. It is also likely that post-Christmas other retailers will also fall and High Street vacancy rates will continue to rise as will the jobless total in the retail sector … and all this before the true impact of Brexit impacts the economy.

Salisbury Debenhams – Photo by Author

There are various calls for government and local authorities together with shopping centre landlords to ‘do something’. To invest, reduce rates, award grants, subsidies and loans, cut VAT and parking fees. Alternatively, to appoint a shopping Tsar or a panel of retail experts to advise or simply we are all urged to return to the High St by evoking sentimental memories of Grace Brothers or the long queues for the Christmas grotto!

But should we mourn the demise of these retail giants?

In no way underestimating the huge impact on the lives of those who have lost their jobs, the town centres we mourn are in many respects not dissimilar to the mono culture pervading our agriculture with its resulting impact on bio diversity.  Our shopping streets have become an endless diet of multiple retailers, repeated across every town and city. Local and specialist retailers, public goods providers, the creative arts, residential and other diverse uses have all been pushed to the fringes.

Is this an opportunity to rebuild with greater diversity now we all shop from our armchairs?

This is an opportunity to put people and our multifarious needs and wants back at the heart of our town centres. As social animals, we want to get out of our armchairs and meet people, to talk and laugh, to connect and be creative. More than ever with Covid we all have a deep-seated need to re-establish our own personal identities by shoring up our personal network of friends and family and of course it is the myriad of individual networks that creates the community that we call street, road, school, village, church, club, town or city.

Now is the time to drop our obsession with finding a replacement for the retail casualties and focus on creating town centre environments in which all our many communities can flourish. We will of course value and retain a selection of successful multiple, niche regional and local retailers but every town also has many would-be independent or specialist retailers, entrepreneurs or craftspeople and artists who could offer much to the street landscape if we can provide the right physical and business environment and offer shared financial risk. We already have the cafes and the restaurants, pubs and wine bars and this sector will continue to grow as the balance away from pure shopping towards leisure and community accelerates.

Why not relocate public goods providers, services and diversity of uses back into the town centres?

We can relocate libraries, GP surgeries, Citizens Advice, nurseries and creches, charity services such as advice centres and coffee and lunch clubs. Provide space for theatre and music groups, independent cinema, art galleries and museums, for University and Adult education, places for local schools to do fieldwork or exhibit art and sculpture.  Consider setting up or extending specialist outdoor and indoor markets, launch and expand festivals and street entertainment.  Create a vibrant destination to go during the day and into the evenings as well as wet Sunday afternoons! A place to meet friends, to stay and enjoy. Creating destinations to attract visitors as towns develop specialist offerings with encouragement for hotels, budget and boutique.  Residential refurbishment of upper floors and reclaimed secondary shopping streets together with new build will ensure the centre is used all day every day. Attract multi-purpose uses for all ages, for the curious and the opportunity to explore and take ownership. No longer the mono culture.

How do we achieve this?

Investment in the environment and infra structure by government and local authorities with selective grants and subsidies available for those key ‘people’ anchors will all act as a catalyst to transforming our town centres into people first communities.  Prioritise people over cars with pedestrianisation, cycle friendly streets and subsidise bus routes. Creating places to meet and spend time with other people. Some of whom we will know, but some we will meet for the first time!

Out of town retail should pay higher rates with levies on their car parking spaces along with an assumption of no consent to new edge of town planning applications. In town taxes on empty shops after a grace period will force private landlords to reduce rents and find tenants. Lower rents will attract local retailers in particular. Local start-up funds and employment subsidies will encourage new tenants. Shop local, shop independent schemes ramped up to build a real connection between community and business.

Putting people and diversity at the heart of our town centres

Prior to the post-war surge in multiple retailing which pushed or priced out diversity, we had a vibrant mix of uses in our town centres. Now is the time to reclaim and nurture the creativity and joie de vivre that will re-emerge in a diverse multi-use environment.

If we prioritise our investment by putting our social values, people and community first, growth through diversity will follow naturally and organically, providing new jobs across many different sectors in the process. 

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