The identity of a place is closely bound to the public spaces a community shares. Visiting your thriving local high street or town centre can lift the spirits and make you feel proud, whereas dead space and empty shops has the opposite effect.
The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the decline of our high streets and town centres in an alarming way. The increase in on-line retail has undermined the viability of many well-known high street stores and the trend seems likely to continue.
Working from home and Covid-19 restrictions have resulted in less people visiting town centres and the devastating impact on business can be seen in the depressing number of vacant premises. Supporting the revitalisation of high streets and town centres so that whole communities can experience pride of place and the associated sense of wellbeing should be a focus for investment.
It is clear, that high streets and town centres needed to reinvent themselves, even before the pandemic. The new trend towards local living could help revive those with sufficient residential density around them. Larger town centres, that rely on people travelling some distance to shop and spend time there, will need more careful nurturing through the radical change they need to survive and thrive again.
The Government’s recent changes to the planning use classes and permitted development make it easier to convert buildings to new uses. Based on the current trends this will certainly mean a large reduction in retail space. An increase in the number of homes within walking distance of high streets and town centres could be beneficial. But preserving enough active frontage at ground floor level is vital to support the viability of retail that remains and allow for potential growth in the future. Improvements to public realm to create attractive public spaces with potential to hold outdoor markets and events are also necessary to draw people in again.
The importance of high streets to communities needs to be recognised; good high streets with a range of shops, places to meet and other services are the lifeblood of neighbourhoods, towns and cities. They provide all important opportunities to socialise which decreases problems associated with social isolation and loneliness and can enable our growing elderly population to live independently for longer. We are not convinced that simply allowing market forces to drive change to our high streets and town centres will create the kind of places we will be proud of in the future. Careful curation of these spaces is needed to support for some of the uses that are less commercially profitable in the medium-term, but which sustain the long-term wellbeing of the community will be necessary.
Case studies of high streets that have successfully delivered regeneration can be found on the Academy of Urbanism website. Poynton in Cheshire has revived a failing town centre through innovative public space improvements that slow the through-traffic; the once blighted the street is now a space place people want to visit and spend time in once again. The number of vacant shops has dramatically reduced, and the variety of independent shops and chain stores increased. Another example is Oliver Plunkett Street in Cork where the fine grain of ground floor shop fronts has proved particularly resilient in the face of change and pedestrianisation of side streets has encouraged outdoor seating for cafes and restaurants.
We would like to see communities engaged in producing Visions for their high streets and town centres leading to masterplans, public realm strategies and design codes being adopted as SPDs. This could be achieved through the Neighbourhood Planning process or some form of separate initiative that fosters collaboration between local authorities, businesses and the communities they serve.
- High Streets and Town Centres should be proactively planned through community planning processes involving the local residents, businesses and service providers.
- Public realm improvements to create attractive, inclusive environments for all should be funded through the Infrastructure Levy or another mechanism as a priority.