Let’s do something radical to boost town centres
By Simon Quin, Director Institute of Place Management
The Daily Mirror on Saturday 3rd March ran a story headlined “Britain’s high streets becoming ‘ghost towns’ due to brutal closures” which detailed further retail collapses, the high level of retail vacancy in some centres, notably Stoke-on-Trent, Dewsbury and Newport, and words of worry from retail expert Richard Hyman. The story highlighted concerns from Richard Hyman that many retailers are in denial over changing shopping habits and also contained various references from local retailers to the perceived lack of or wrong response from local authorities.
Institute of Place Management Findings
Research by the Institute of Place Management published in the Journal of Place Management and Development (Improving the vitality and viability of the UK High Street by 2020: Identifying priorities and a framework for action) notes that “dramatic changes have been a constantly recurring theme” in respect of retail centres as they have seen the rise of department stores, chain stores, supermarkets, shopping malls, the impact of refrigeration, increased car ownership, retail deregulation, out of town retailing and online. Having undertaken a systematic review of the literature relating to retail centres and then working with stakeholders in 10 town centres, we were able to identify some two hundred factors that can impact on town centre health. Most significantly we also identified the 25 most important factors that are controllable locally.
The 4 Rs of Regeneration
The research identified the ‘4 Rs of Regeneration’. The first of these is Repositioning and requires collaboration amongst different stakeholders to share and analyse data and information about what is happening in the town centre. Do stakeholders, whether from the public, private or community sector, really understand the forces of change that are impacting their centre? In the Daily Mirror article Richard Hyman suggests they do not and we agree. We are currently working to develop dashboards that stakeholders can access to monitor the performance of their centre looking at key indicators like footfall and sales. Repositioning enables towns to recognise the failure of previous strategies, identify new ways of expanding economic activity, and find ways to improve existing retailing.
The second R is Reinventing. Individual retailers are very familiar with this. They adapt opening hours to different circumstances, they segment their stores to fit market niches, they adapt the store to meet the physical requirements of the individual unit. How can this be applied town wide? We think it is essential to understand the customers you are looking to serve. To know what kind of town you are and to meet those customers’ needs, and not just retail needs. Find out what you can about the people who use your town and remember that some towns have many visitors that will not be obvious in a simple look at the catchment area.
Rebranding is the third R. This is about communicating the image and identity of your town. What is different, what is unique about you? It is now recognised that good place brands cannot be imposed from above but need to be something that is co-created, hence again requiring collaboration and engagement.
Restructuring is the final R and in some instances is the most difficult to achieve. It is the recognition that old systems are not working, that strategic networks and partnerships need to be created to address the scale of challenge. We are seeing the difference that Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) are making to town and city centres around the country. These actively engage many more of the location stakeholders in decision-making, which is why the Institute of Place Management is keen to support them through The BID Foundation. A BID takes time to establish and it is not the only route to Restructuring. Local partnerships can be established, but they need to be strategic to be effective.
Some articles you read would suggest that all high streets are set to collapse. That this is not the case should encourage you to take the steps you need in your centre. In 2010, Altrincham, one of the 10 towns we worked with on the High Street research, was the town making headlines as a ghost town. Retail vacancy was around a third of units. Today the town is a thriving centre, vacancy has plummeted, footfall has risen by a quarter, new businesses are arriving and new investment is happening. You can read more in the Manchester Evening News article from February ‘From ghost town to boom town – how Altrincham became the place to be’. We feature Altrincham’s story in our research article along with other useful initiatives in 9 other towns.
It is time to do something radical and adopt a new approach for your town if you want it to have a future.
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