As high streets and town centres continues to face multiple pressures, Professor Cathy Parker, the research lead for the Government’s High Streets Task Force, explains in a new podcast why partnerships are essential to managing change.
Could you tell us about the IPM’s role in the High Streets Task Force and the work that the Task Force is currently undertaking?
Setting up a High Street’s Task Force for England was a direct recommendation from Sir John Timpson after his review of the issues and opportunities facing high streets in 2018. He recognised that people passionate about their local high street – whether they were businesses, residents, or from local government or public services – can and do make a real difference to their success. Sir John recommended a Task Force be set up to support these people and The Institute of Place Management leading a consortium of 12 other partners won the tender to run it in 2019.
People will read and hear about the issues facing our high streets in the news – from your work and research, what are the main challenges facing our high streets?
Well high streets have always been changing – but the pace of change has definitely got quicker – and, at the same time, the capacity to manage change has reduced. We focus on that capacity and capability to manage change because it is what makes places resilient. By that I mean be able to bound back after shocks – like the rise of out of town and online shopping or the Pandemic.
We ran a series of webinars over COVID and found lots of high street stakeholders that were using the lockdowns to work together and plan how they were going to re-open their high street safely, and also coordinate things like local online ordering and delivery services, and use social media and other ways to keep in touch with the community. This was facilitated through the application of a COVID recovery plan we had designed. Those high streets did bounce back quicker – because they actively managed the situation. There were hundreds of others that didn’t have a group coordinating and planning for recovery. These are high streets that still have things like social distancing signs on them, installed by Highways Departments, because nobody cares enough to get them taken them down. It’s definitely the lack of partnerships of collaborative working across councils, businesses, and the wider community that is main challenge to our high streets.
How have large retailers affected the high street and what can be done to replace the huge holes they have left in many places as they have been forced to close over the last few years?
Large retailing dominated our high streets – and people forgot that towns and high streets have always had a mix of uses. Services are important, like food and drink, and local businesses are important – but these got squeezed out by the multiples who, with the property industry, demanded more space and bigger and bigger units. This destroyed the natural size and layout of many of our town and city centres. And I said this at the time – the response I got was it was what the public wanted – but too much got built.
New shopping centres cannibalised demand from other local shopping centres in the same town. So towns had one shiny new centre, where all the retailers wanted to be, and older centres, that looked tired, had vacancies, and started to become places where no one wanted to be. We’ve had a problem with vacancies for some time – and it is very hard to re-let units that have been custom made for one type of user – usually a chain or department store. We wrote a piece highlighting how only half of empty BHS stores had been reoccupied after four years – drawing on figures from the Local Data Company. We are seeing some very creative uses of these spaces – but it’s usually a whole range of businesses and services that are occupying large retail units.
What is the key to creating a successful high street or place and what can others learn from the successes when it comes to regenerating or revitalising a high street?
We identified the 25 priorities for a successful high street back in 2016 – we refreshed them again in 2019 – and we will look at them again soon – but the elements of success are not really rocket science. I will just talk about the top 5. First is activity – successful high streets draw in people…and we find most high streets have no idea who comes there or when. Imagine running a company where you had no idea what products were popular, or even when customers were going to visit! The second priority is the offer. It needs to meet the needs of the catchment. At the moment, there is very little attempt to understand why people visit – or more often now – why people don’t.
Sometimes a town centre loses a key businesses – like a bakery or a greengrocer – and all of sudden people can’t get something important – so end up doing all their shopping elsewhere. Having a vision and strategy to manage change is number three. Again, many towns are the result of decisions made in head offices hundreds of miles away – there is no attempt to react to changes like closures etc. locally. The experience is number four. This can be positive – with things like festivals or negative if you experience anti-social behaviour, for example. Finally, appearance – again positive – lighting and hanging baskets etc. or negative – litter and poorly maintained shop fronts. All these priorities along with tips for how you manage them are on the high streets task force website wwww.highstreets.org.uk.
What do you think the future holds for our high streets and how will academic research and the work of the Task Force feed into this?
If we can encourage more partnerships to take responsibility for the future of their high streets – then the future is very bright. We are currently undertaking a study of how partnerships form, what they do, and the incredible impact they have. I’d encourage more researchers to change their focus from the physical side of regeneration to the people-powered part. That’s the future. Especially as we are now in an age where reusing and repurposing space, buildings and even goods is becoming the norm. People make places – they always have – but I think we forgot that in the last century.