David Jones, MD/Head of Planning takes a look at what the future might hold for our town centres in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
I have been writing about the future of the high street for some time now – before we could have imagined that a global pandemic would come along and tap a final nail in the coffin of the UK high street as we know it.
In one of my articles earlier this year, I said – “Ask me what the high street will look like in 20 or 30 years and I have to say it's difficult to answer. So much will change because our lives will change.”
Well I was certainly right about that – but not in a way that anyone could have imagined. It’s easy to blame COVID as the sole destructor of the traditional UK high street – whereas in fact, the high street was already in a slow decline due to a number of factors, most notably the dramatic rise in online shopping. COVID has simply served to accelerate this process and turn a slow bleed into full-blown haemorrhage.
Retail sales are recovering – in fact, retail sales in August 2020 were 4% higher than pre-pandemic levels. However, with sales boosted by online and spending in out-of-town household and DIY stores, it has not helped the ailing high street.
The time has come to acknowledge that the face of retail has changed and we must work to repurpose our town centres. And is that necessarily a bad thing? We often hear words such as ‘demise’, ‘death’ and ‘decline’ used in association with the high street and blame of the ‘evil’ Amazon or other online retailers for ‘killing’ it. In reality, it is an evolution of consumer tastes and behaviours and our high street must evolve alongside it.
Retail should still be a focus – but our high street property must provide retailers with stores they need today, not 30 years ago. Smaller, more flexible units at ground floor level, with shorter leases – or even pop-up shops. The days of vast retail spaces with multiple floors are behind us and we must adapt to the needs of today’s retailers.
It is often said that office space won’t work in town centres because it is too reliant on parking, but there are many examples which show that town centre quality office space can work. When people are working in an area they wander round it, bringing vibrancy and footfall to our town centre spaces.
High streets will get smaller and shrink into a central core and they will have to operate in a similar way to how outlet villages and large retail centres like Westfield, Bicester, Swindon Design Outlet or Gloucester Quays operate. The Quays is a great example in that there is an overarching single landowner in place that is able to make big and important strategic and holistic decisions for the good of the retail offering as a whole. This can include facilitating and, in many instances funding, festivals, activities and specialist bespoke events.
Landlords, businesses and local authorities need to come together and create a vision for town centres – they are unable to achieve such a scale of change on their own, it will require public sector intervention and cannot be left to the market alone.
The government’s recent changes to permitted development rights are a very positive step. Whilst under current regulations, vacant buildings can be converted to residential use, it is fair to say that such conversions were often of poor quality and failed to improve the standard of design more generally within an area. The new right (where applicable) provides an opportunity to construct efficient well-designed homes and significantly boost the supply of new housing.
If we can create town centres in which people want to live, work and play, this can only serve to revitalise our town centres and give them a beating heart once again.
The high street can no longer be just about retail, that's for certain. Retail is just one part of the jigsaw and if you get the other bits right, retail will follow.
David Jones is Managing Director/Head of Planning at Evans Jones Ltd, Property and Planning Consultancy, based in Cheltenham, with offices in London and Reading.