UK: Saving our Secondary Towns

In this article, leading international urban design and masterplanning expert, Adrian Griffiths, discusses the decline of the high street in our secondary towns, and what can be done to reverse this trend.

Many of our secondary UK town centres and high streets are in trouble. Businesses struggle to survive with changing consumer shopping patterns. The big question everyone is asking is 'how can we stop the decline'?

How our town centres evolved…

Before we get into the detail, we need to look back at history to understand why our town and city centres grew, and what ingredients created their success and continued growth. Then we need to look at the reasons why some are in decline and face a bleak future.

Historically, centres generally evolved around trading points created as a destination by either roads, rivers or ports, and were strengthened through the development of the railways and canals. The size of the centre was intrinsically linked to the amount of trade - the best example being Liverpool, which was the UK’s second largest city in the early 1900’s, and grew on the back of sea trade through its docks. The loss of this trade, due to the introduction of the Manchester Ship canal and the later containerisation process in the 1970’s, delivered a hammer-blow to the city from which it is still recovering. However, our major cities are robust, and should always be able to fight back. It is the smaller towns that we should really be concerned about.

Smaller centres have historically offered a variety of experiences, with market days often being the focus of the week. At weekends, while many would work on a Saturday morning, they would dress up in the afternoon and go into town to be seen and to socialise. The majority of the shops would be family businesses, passed on from one generation to the next, with the passion of the owners present in the offer, and everyone knowing who was who. There would be pop-up offers with fairs and circuses visiting throughout the year. The mode of transport at the time ensured the offer was compact, and the centres had a vibrancy that many of us strive to recreate today.

Where has it all gone wrong? Why are our town centres declining?

There are many reasons, starting with the introduction of the department store, which took the majority of the concessions off the high street and placed them in a one-stop shop-managed environment. Second was the introduction of the supermarket, which followed the format of the department store and took the food offer from the high street. Each of these innovations was aimed at simplifying the shopping process. Third was the introduction of out-of-town retail, and, in particular, bulky goods, which are often major purchases and a core reason for a family visit to a centre. When you then add the introduction of major car parks that align with the anchor stores or out-of-town retail, you have automatically taken away the need to visit the town centre.

A secondary town centre's offer has become so poor that even the simple things can be hard to find!

The final nail in the coffin is the rise of the suburbs. The desire to own your own property in the country, with your own garden and car parking, is most attractive - but inevitably took life further out of our centres.

It must be stated that the demise of the majority of our secondary town centres was pre-internet and, while the internet will have a further negative impact, it is not the cause of the decline of our town centres.

The damage created by all of these changes to our shopping and living patterns runs much deeper. The family businesses, which were the social glue to our centres, are mainly gone, and these properties are now often in the ownership of remote landlords whose only interest is to extract rent. This multiple ownership structure, with landlords who do not have passion for the properties, has created a system of decline. The fundamental management of a town centre, where all the families were in effect working together, has long gone and is unikely to return.

However, there is hope. At Chapman Taylor we believe that our centres can have a bright future if we are willing to learn from history.

We shouldn’t be too nostalgic in looking back to the past, but there were inherent qualities that we should strive to recreate. It is important to note that our town centres need to create a point of difference from the internet and department and supermarket stores, and that the public do enjoy an experience which can be delivered in a number of ways.

What can be done to reverse the trend?

First, the councils need to overcome the issue of multiple ownership and lack of control. The fundamental requirement in the delivery of a successful town centre is one of management, a lesson clearly learnt by just looking at the success of not only the department stores, but also our successful shopping and designer outlet centres. The local authorities must understand they do not possess the skill-set or passion to manage a town centre, and should recruit, or work with, the managers of our best shopping centre owners. Blanket compulsory purchase orders will be required across great swathes of a town centre's core to provide the ownership and control that is required.

Second, we need to design the experience and the offer that fits with the way the public want to live their lives. While a very different product, we can learn from such schemes as Bicester Village. A designer outlet centre that is off the beaten track, being no more than a department store with the luxury concessions on the outside rather than within a building, yet reputed to be one of the most successful shopping centres in the world. Bicester has a clear point of difference and is easily accessed by car. The local authorities must not underestimate the importance of the car, and, as part of the CPO process, provide for large quantities of surface parking immediately adjacent to the core retail offer. We must treat our town centres as if they were shopping centres, and make them as simple as possible to navigate. Free, or smart, parking is a key ingredient.

Third, we need to understand the sense of place and unique offer we desire. Again looking at Bicester Village, it is not about how big the centre is, but what is on offer. Our secondary centres should have a rounded offer, with the key ingredients from the department store and supermarkets ideally put back on the high street. The management team should work with independent retailers, together with the multiples, to bring back and create the vibrancy that will overcome the cloned towns we see today. Town centres are not just about 'shops'. They must include a rounded offer, such as cafés restaurants, leisure, cultural and workplaces, and, most importantly, housing must be provided. All masterplanned around a quality public realm which creates that memorable sense of place the public bond with. Pop up retail and travelling farmers' markets in line with the fairs and circuses from the past, will form part of this mix, adding to the experience.

Our town centres need to be actively managed

We believe that the way forward for our secondary town centres is clear. It just requires some bold control and a different understanding to how we approach 'commercial value' in our centres. Our centres need to evolve on a daily basis, and if a retailer is failing then they must be changed to protect the quality of the environment. Long leases should be a thing of the past. Bicester Village changes 30% of its tenants each year to maintain and grow the offer, providing customers with a new experience each time they visit. The most important financial denominator is not the length of the lease over which an income is received, but the maximisation of how much income across the centre can be achieved in any one year.

Of course it is easy to say all this. What we need is a local authority to grab the baton and bring in a mixed-use shopping centre specialist, with the right design team, who is willing to take on their town centre and create the success it can be.

About the Author

Adrian Griffiths (BA (Hons) Dip Arch RIBA MA Urban Design FRSA)

Board Director, UK

Adrian joined Chapman Taylor in 1986 and was promoted to the Main Board in 1998. As an architect and urban design specialist, he is recognised internationally for his expertise in the masterplanning of major complex mixed-use developments which are key drivers in the regeneration of our town and city centres.

Adrian is conscious of the fact that the developments we build today create the societies of tomorrow, recognising the responsibility the profession has in influencing the quality of people’s lives. He regularly speaks at conferences and prepares papers which promote the benefits of mixed-use developments as a sustainable model for the long term. Adrian leads the Concept Design Team in the UK.

Areas of expertise:

Urban design /  Masterplanning /  Mixed use / Retail / Leisure

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