UK Retail: Saving our Secondary Towns

UK Retail: 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 with 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, whilst many would work on a Saturday morning, they would dress up in the afternoon and go into town to be seen and 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 that 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 that 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. Thirdly 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 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, whilst this will have a further negative impact, it is not the cause of the decline of our town centres.

The damage created by all 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 who’s 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 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, 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?

Firstly, 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 centres core to provide the ownership and control that is required.

Secondly, we need to design the experience and the offer that fits with the way the public want to live their lives. Whilst a very different product, we can learn from such schemes as Bicester Village.  A designer outlet centre that is off the beaten track and being no more than a department store with the luxury concessions on the outside rather than within a building, which is 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.

Thirdly, 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 ideally the key ingredients from the department store and supermarkets 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, workplace and most importantly housing must be provided. All masterplanned around a quality public realm that creates that memorable sense of place the public bond with. Pop up retail, 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 the way forward for our secondary town centre's 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 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 the customer 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.

Adrian Griffiths

About the author

Adrian Griffiths

LLP Board Director
BA (Hons) Dip Arch RIBA MA Urban Design FRSA

Adrian Griffiths, is recognised internationally for his expertise in the blending of architecture and urban design.

Adrian’s authority is recognised by various industry bodies and in particular by the British Council of Shopping Centres as a member of the Awards jury and the Royal Society of Artists.  He speaks at leading conferences promoting the benefits of urban renewal and mixed-use developments as key drivers of city and town centre economic regeneration.

With over 25 years of international experience, he has designed many landmark projects and environments with the most recent notable examples including Whitefriars Canterbury, Princesshay Exeter, Cabot Circus Bristol and Trinity Leeds. Current high profile masterplanning projects include proposals for a 60 hectare site known as Liverpool Waters and Brent Cross London.

Within the practice, Adrian takes the lead on new retail initiatives and directs the UK feasibility team.

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About the Author

ADRIAN GRIFFITHS (荣誉学士学位 建筑学文凭 英国皇家建筑师学会会员,城市设计硕士,皇家艺术协会会员)

合伙人, UK

艾德里安1986年加入查普门泰勒,并于1998年升任董事会董事。作为所有者之一,他与其他董事会成员一道决定公司发展战略,积极推动公司发展。他是英国境内设计项目的领导人,同时积极担任伦敦和布里斯托事务所的管理工作。 作为拥有30年丰富经验的建筑师、城市规划师,艾德里安将二者技巧完美融合,在业内享有声誉


Adrian entra a far parte di Chapman Taylor nel 1986 e si unisce al Main Board nel 1998. Come architetto e specialista in progettazione urbanistica, è conosciuto a livello internazionale per la sua esperienza nei masterplan di grandi complessi multi-funzionali, che sono i principali autori nella rigenerazione dei nostri centri urbani.

Adrian è consapevole del fatto che le zone di sviluppo urbano che oggi costruiamo creano le società di domani, riconoscendo la responsabilità che la professione ha nell'influenzare la qualità della vita delle persone. Adrian partecipa abitualmente a conferenze e scrive articoli che promuovono i benefici degli spazi multifunzionali come modello sostenibile a lungo termine. Adrian guida il Concept Design Team nel Regno Unito.

Aree di competenza:

Urban design /  Masterplanning /  Mixed use / Retail / Leisure

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