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The case for the high street


Town centres are the heart of our communities, in this blog Lichfields senior planner Daniel Gregg looks at some of the issues they face and introduces their joint report with the Chamber.

Town centres are the heart of our communities. Not only a focal point for shops and services, but a hub for local people – a place to work, eat and drink, relax and socialise. It won’t have escaped most people’s attention, though, that they are facing significant challenges. These include the ongoing growth of internet shopping, competition from out-of-centre retail and leisure destinations, and wider economic conditions.

Rather than abating, the retail storm has gathered yet more pace over the last year or so. Recently, House of Fraser announced that they are to close four more stores, with Debenhams saying in October that fifty of their stores would go the same way. Information from the Local Data Company, issued in November 2018, showed a big spike in the overall number of store closures in the UK, rising from around 20,000 in the first half of 2017 to over 24,000 in the first six months of 2018. Although these are nation-wide issues, the north-east of England has suffered more than most areas, with an average unit vacancy rate the highest of all the regions.

Portas and Grimsey have both had their say (the latter twice), but not until recently has the penny really dropped with the Government. A Future High Streets Fund worth £675m was announced in the Autumn Budget and, whilst a small amount compared to the money poured into other sectors, it is better late than never. Funding for infrastructure, site assembly and heritage-led regeneration will not solve all of the problems but is a welcome start. Retail is the third largest employment sector in the north-east and surely worth supporting as much as other parts of the economy.

As a Partner Member of the North East England Chamber of Commerce (the Chamber), Lichfields were delighted to join them on a project looking at these issues. Our research involved looking at various case studies, as well as roundtables in five centres, all with different characteristics. The feedback we received from these roundtables – held in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Middlesbrough, Hexham, Berwick-upon Tweed and Stanley - helped us get to the heart of these issues, and how they are being tackled by traders, local authorities and other stakeholders.

So what did we find? Hexham has a relatively affluent population and is - on the face of it, at least - a thriving town, yet perceptions are that it could have a much better offer. Berwick Town Centre should capture more spend from both its sizeable catchment population and the significant numbers of tourists visiting the area, but no-one seems to be promoting it. Stanley has perhaps lost out the most from the large regional centres, including Newcastle and the Gateshead Metrocentre, yet independent retailers there seemed more driven to defy their circumstances. All three are small to medium-sized centres and all three suffer from a lack of effective collaboration between retailers and other stakeholders.

Everything is relative though. Newcastle is the largest destination in the north-east, although it needs to do more to differentiate itself from major destinations further afield. A Business Improvement District (BID) there has delivered significant investment and increases in visitor numbers. Whilst Middlesbrough Council is pushing hard to attract investment, and does more than most to support independents, its retail sector (like most places) is declining. These are two large centres with very different means of engagement.

There are common themes throughout the centres we looked at – the need for a more family-friendly food and beverage offer fits with the need to move away from an alcohol-focused night-time economy. Rather than bemoaning the impact of the internet, retailers need to embrace online, promote themselves better, and offer click and collect and delivery services where they can. Local authorities should provide better support to independent retailers, take a more flexible approach to changes of use (haven’t we been saying this for a while…), and look to new (non-retail) anchors to draw people in.

These and other centres across the region all have different challenges. There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution. There are, though, good examples of best practice from these and other centres in the region which can be adapted to local circumstances. These solutions require buy-in from all stakeholders, and particularly those that have the most to lose or gain – the retailers themselves.

Alongside the the Chamber we have put together a series of recommendations, based on this best practice, as well as Lichfields’ wide experience of advising both public and private sector clients across the country. Read my next blog to find out more about these recommendations, and how we can help secure our town centres’ future roles.

Daniel Gregg
Senior Planner, Lichfields

This article originally appeared on the award-winning Lichfields Planning Matters blog, for more insights please visit their website.