A report back on the APSE policy seminar exploring the future of our high streets and town centres.
Chaired by Cllr Mark Pengelly, APSE’s national chair, this event was brought online in response to requests from our member councils. Facing the post-COVID world is daunting for everyone but in terms of local high streets and town centres there is an acute sense of urgency as on-going social distancing, changes to work patterns and risks of big household names being called into administration has brought forward multiple challenges.
Opening the Seminar Paul O’Brien, APSE’s Chief Executive, explored the financial pressures facing local councils but argued that, whilst developers may be “scared off the park” in a post-COVID world, the wider objectives of councils include acting as stewards of place and supporting local economic resilience. Paul suggested that the future sustainability of local places was intrinsically linked to the viability and attractiveness of local high streets and town centres and therefore, in terms of local economic recovery, they should be a central plank of the any process.
Up next delegates heard from Dr Steve Millington, Senior Lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University and a co-author of the Government commissioned report ‘Achieving Change: High Street 2030’, who explored the role of place management. Steve specifically highlighted the differences in footfall experienced following a lessening of lockdown. However, one clear positive from COVID-19 has been that people are shopping locally and more in independent shops across all age groups and regions. What is also clear from Dr Millington is that retail as the sole offering locally has, and will continue to, choke off high streets, making a clear case for multiple-use town centres.
Owing to the need for social distancing, shop workers are now responsible for marshalling shoppers to keep them safe and being responsible, to an extent, for the behaviour of shoppers. Dave McCrossen, Deputy General Secretary of USDAW, made a powerful case for retail jobs to be regarded as ‘real jobs’. Mr McCrossen also revealed the value of retail jobs to local economies with ‘bricks and mortar’ non-food retailers down £1.8 billion a week in lost sales during COVID and the staggering loss of 6,000 retail jobs from the UK high street on one day alone (Wednesday 6 July). However, during the audience question and answer session it was nice to hear tributes paid to high street workers for keeping local communities safe during the pandemic.
Next up and exploring an event-led approach to reimagining local high streets and town centres was Cllr. Darren Byford, Cabinet Member for Regeneration and Economic Growth at Wakefield Metropolitan District Council. Cllr Byford, responding in some senses to the pleas from Dr Millington, explained that Wakefield had already adopted an event-led approach to Wakefield’s future. This includes the ‘sculpture and culture’ approach to attracting visitors through the Yorkshire sculpture park but also recognising that for this to work they want to attract people to stay, eat and spend in the local economy.
Whilst much can be celebrated about the growth of café culture on our high streets there is little to celebrate in areas where café culture is more cholesterol culture with an abundance of takeaways selling high fat unhealthy foods. Gateshead Councils’ Anneliese Hutchinson, who is the Service Director for Development and Public Protection, explained how the Council has tackled this head on with restrictions on takeaways through creative use of planning consents. Gateshead has also linked its vision for healthier high streets into its long-term plan and development goals.
Our final speaker on day one of the Seminar was Richard Roe, Corporate Director of Place at Trafford Council. As many market towns have struggled with reinventing their offering to a new and more discerning customer base, the success of Altrincham has bucked this trend by utilising a USP as a ‘foodie’ destination. Alongside practical support to businesses, with a Town Centres Business Growth Programme, allowing borrowing for traders setting up in the Town has proven to be a remarkable success. For Altrincham, this has entailed quite the reversal of fortunes, going from one of the highest shop vacancy rates in the UK to a vibrant and bustling town centre.
On day two of the Seminar, discussions were opened up by Mo Baines of APSE who highlighted both the challenges of climate change on our high streets and also the opportunities for shopping locally to be a new ‘green’ offering for consumers. As companies move away from big office complexes with many embracing home working, there was a discussion on opportunities to develop short hire ‘work pods’ in empty shop units; both for income generation and footfall but to also serve residents who may not have the luxury of home situations that are suitable for longer-term home working.
And of course, in terms of High Streets and Town Centres a recognised saviour in recent weeks for fresh fruit, vegetables, meats and baked goods has been local markets. Following something of a baptism of fire as the newly installed Chief Executive of the National Association of British Markets (NABMA), David Preston explored how they had responded to the health pandemic with a detailed call for support to markets – many of which included the market operators falling outside of Government support mechanisms. (We would of course encourage you all to follow and support the #MyMarket campaign feed on twitter!!)
In a passionate plea for the value of making places look clean, green and welcoming, Richard Beddard, Markets and Town Centre Cleansing Manager with Stockton on Tees Council, highlighted that for success in town centres and high streets, it was imperative to support high quality and bespoke operational services. This was especially the case in towns set to embrace event-led opportunities. Ensuring the quality of the service bred confidence in local businesses and the visiting public – enhancing spend in the local economy.
Of course, any discussion on high streets and town centres would not be complete without a discussion on parking! Whether you love it or loathe it, the car it is embedded as a mode of transport in most shopping districts. Alison Tooze of The British Parking Association encouraged councils to think proactively about parking with its dual purpose to both encourage shoppers but also ensure fair enforcement practices to keep traffic and communities flowing where needed. Alison pressed the case with delegates to ensure that they embrace new technologies for smarter parking and encouraging car-drivers to park away from congested areas and embrace the walk into town or the local shops.
This line on parking was vigorously supported by Stephen Edwards, Director of Policy and Communications with Living Streets. Exploring the need for places to embrace active walking and cycling routes, Stephen welcomed the many actions being taken by local councils post-COVID in making places easier for pedestrians and cyclists alike. However, he stressed this had to be a longer term and ambitious plan – not simply a short-term reaction to the need for social distancing in light of the health pandemic.
The final special guest speaker of the seminar was Bill Grimsey, retail guru and former chief officer in many high street chains including Wickes, Iceland and Hutchison Whampoa's Park n' Shop supermarket chain in Hong Kong. Bill shared his latest thoughts on the future of the UK High Street but argued that singular use for retail purposes was no longer a viable option. Bill suggested embracing mixed usage for high streets as well as abandoning the love affair with the car. Mr Grimsey suggested that this was not just about the here and now but the future for our children and grandchildren where the climate emergency could not and should not be ignored for the sake of the retail pound. Bills latest updated paper of the future of the high street post-pandemic can be downloaded by APSE members using this link. •
Presentation slides from the event can be accessed here.
For more information about this event, or about high street regeneration, please contact Mo Baines on firstname.lastname@example.org