Professor Cathy Parker, Co-Chair of the Institute of Place Management, has told UK Government that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a ‘profound impact’ on high streets, but that the crisis provides an opportunity to reconsider the liveability and leadership of our future town centres.
Professor Parker was giving evidence to the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee on ‘Supporting our high streets after COVID-19’, alongside Prof. Aude Bicquelet-Lock, Deputy Head of Policy and Research at RTPI, and Bill Grimsey, author the Grimsey Review.
In a session lasting over 80 minutes, the three witnesses took questions from a panel of Committee Members, including Clive Betts MP, Ian Byrne MP, Mary Robinson MP, and Bob Blackman MP.
Together the Committee members represent constituencies across England, from Cheadle to Harrow, and in the week when the House of Commons will vote on a proposed second national ‘lockdown’, the panel were keen to explore what had worked since March 2020 and how future high street planning and support could be improved.
Scale of impact and need for reinvention
The panel started by asking witnesses about the scale of impact seen to high streets from the COVID-19 pandemic. Bill Grimsey, former CEO of retailers such as Iceland and Wickes and a Senior Fellow of the IPM, said that the country’s towns require a rethink if they’re going to be viable in the long term.
“We need to reinvent our towns as community hubs based on health, entertainment, leisure, arts, and some shops as well. We need to reinvent these places, using technology, as places that are exciting to go.”
Agreeing with Bill and reflecting on what is a key indicator for research, Professor Cathy Parker highlighted the changes in footfall levels that demonstrate the fundamental impacts seen across England.
“We’ve never been in a situation before when people have been told to stay home. That has had a profound impact on high streets. We’ve seen footfall fall by as much as 90%. So, there’s just not the people going out.”
Cathy noted that even after restrictions were released, the best-performing towns in terms of footfall were still 20% below their pre-COVID levels.
Mobility and liveability
Professor Parker highlighted the cause for much of the drop in footfall and spending on UK high streets as a ‘mobility issue’, with people working from home and to different schedules meaning that traditional routines and the centres we use are changing after COVID-19.
Bill Grimsey also spoke about this factor, identifying that local centres are seeing smaller falls in popularity, with many people rediscovering the places where they live and the ‘shop local’ ethos.
In this context, there was debate about the role of bigger cities following the crisis, and whether a focus should be placed on the concept of the 20-minute city, something which the UK is not great at currently, according to Professor Parker.
“When you’re in lockdown in Manchester, what else is there to do if everything is shut? There’s not that many green spaces and parks. We need to ensure an opportunity out of this is to make our town centres more liveable again.”
Bill Grimsey made the case for looking at longer-term transformation of these centres, moving from an obsession with current issues like availability of car parking, to envisioning what cities in 2050 will be like and what infrastructure they will need.
“I do think there will be a move away from the big out-of-town as we migrate from a car-based culture to a technology-based culture in the 21st Century….we’re obsessed with car parking, we should forget it…by 2050 there won’t be cars in towns.”
The Committee witnesses also spoke about the vital nature of local leadership to realising much of the transformation that is possible in towns.
Bill Grimsey quoted as an example, the visionary leadership in Stockton-on-Tees as highlighted in the recent Build Back Better Report. He encouraged a change of mentality and role for local authorities that are often burdened with many different and competing roles.
“Local authorities need to become again the custodians of place. Not just struggling with budgets, but to actually curate their place to encourage people…to live, work, play and visit their town.”
Professor Parker was asked about the recent progress of the High Streets Task Force and what how we can support local authorities to make the changes required to revitalise towns.
Speaking about the work of the Task Force, Cathy highlighted online support that was made available to all place leaders around the country, including data and a COVID-19 Recovery Framework that has been well-adopted to allow places to ‘hit the ground running’ going into the crisis.
Cathy acknowledged that while the Task Force is preparing to deploy Experts to help places unlock some of the barriers to change, there are over 6,000 high streets in England and not enough resources to help everywhere.
“There needs to be local capacity and leadership to interface with the Task Force…and, leadership can come from other areas (than a local authority).”
“Business improvement districts have been amazing over COVID. The leadership that they’ve shown and how they’ve been able to orchestrate the capacity with their business network. And the same can be said for communities... Leadership has to be more fluid. A group of people that can make this happen.”
COVID support and planning
The witnesses also spent time considering the impact of business support offered by government to those affected by recent restrictions. Professor Parker quoted a business resilience survey from April 2020 that showed that over 95% of businesses had accessed some form of support, with the furlough scheme being top of that list.
While Bill Grimsey welcomed this support, he cautioned about wasting resources on untargeted future measures that benefit those businesses that are performing comparatively well during the period, including big food retailers.
Finally, the session considered recent planning reforms and the governments White Paper on planning. Professor Aude Bicquelet-Lock of the RTPI urged caution about residential conversion within town centres, with recent reforms to permitted development rights. This was supported by Professor Parker who welcomed flexibility of use classes but emphasised concerns over location of development, with disruption of the ground-floor core of town centres being particularly damaging to its offer.
Aude Bicquelet-Lock said:
There should be controls in place to ensure that the introduction of residential into a town centre is not prejudicial to plans to improve the town centre economy.
Watch the Committee session
You can watch the Committee session below >