Town Centre Renaissance - Is it time to call in the bulldozers?

SLR has been helping towns and cities (and the businesses which operate and own property in them) across Ireland and the UK to tackle the decline in retailing with positive solutions. In the article below, Paul McTernan details the challenges, opportunities and some of his key frustrations with the debate.

Ahead of next week’s Academy of Urbanism’s Congress in Cork, it still astonishes me why it’s taking so long for the penny to drop that our town centres are not just about retailing any more. The recent House of Fraser and M&S announcements can’t seriously have come as a shock to anyone. Better get used to it as there will be more like this on the way.

Every city centre regeneration plan I have worked on over the last 30 years has been trying to find bespoke, place specific answers to the creeping and debilitating disease of emptiness and vacancy. In the early years, it was all about out of town, sequential testing and enforcing hard boundaries. The economists told us the periodic voids would heal as the retail product got more intense, but that’s not going to happen anymore. The truth is we are still using blunt policy instruments that give us too many high streets that are only about retailing and little else. How short-sighted is this? If there’s a lesson for the planning system, it lies in years of introverted and narrow-minded retail and town centre policies that have failed to nurture genuine mixed-use approaches to the heart of our towns and cities. We misunderstood what vibrancy actually meant and put policies in place that pushed resident communities to the margins and made the middle of town a pretty unliveable place.

This legacy is now emerging as one of our greatest planning challenges. The IPSOS Retail Performance index shows UK footfall has dipped 5.5% on average since 2016 and 14 shops shut for good in Britain every single day. So how do we deal with the online age where the big retail floor plates are in retreat and how do we re-engineer vibrancy and get people to live in the middle of our towns again? The culture and arts agenda driven by enlightened local authorities is right on the money (and the Congress next week will hear of Irish towns that have been doing this so well for years (Kilkenny, Cork, Belfast, Galway and Derry) but let’s face it, as for a place to live, most town centres across Ireland and the UK are a little bit windswept, there’s no access to upper floors, there’s nowhere to park privately or have a garden, there’s no schools, health centres or parks for kids, it's often noisy, dirty and sometimes feels a little lonely. Making the middle of our towns liveable again will not be easy, but that is what we must do.

The core issue is that town centre space is now so misconfigured it cannot easily evolve to deal with the retail decline and make new business pollination possible. It might just be time to call in the bulldozers and get rid of some of our tired empty malls just to make space work better. The long-term blight of these large floor plates will challenge the best town centre regeneration efforts in the next decade and they will continually undermine recovery and adjustment if not tackled head on. Quite a number of our clients are actively seeking out schemes which will see more residential, care and supported living in central locations because of the sustainability benefits which this will deliver and the government’s (UK) supportive agenda on this. This will be further driven in some locations by the Private Rented Sector (PRS) which is viewed as a very serious investment opportunity by many funds whom are suffering due to their exposure to the very same retail property landbanks. This will ultimately bring a residential population (of various forms) into town sectors, which will directly support retained, surviving and emerging retail uses. So there is investment energy there if we harness it.

At SLR, we did just that recently and advised a local authority in Scotland (Paisley) to buy the prime pitch in the centre of its very handsome high street. We advised them to buy out the absentee landlords (who had boarded them up), reconfigure the buildings to provide separate access to the upper floors, redesign the floor plates to create a design centre with incubation units and reverse the pedestrianisation to bring movement and a sense of security back to the heart of the place. This was all about direct intervention, not by the market (it has failed and investors won’t touch the place) but by local government and this for me is where we are in this debate - the need for real civic leadership to reshape the investment opportunity.

I feel strongly that the contraction of the large stores on the high street will present a clear agenda to physically restructure the spaces left behind to make them work again, and I’m heartened to see the Heritage Lottery Fund retain their commitment to area based funding programmes now that the THI schemes are being wound up. Local government, together with their community planning partners, will certainly need this kind of help to deliver the capital programmes needed to lead this agenda. That said, it is encouraging to see the Welsh Government launch their £27.6m Vibrant and Viable Places Town Centre Loans Fund to help support town centre regeneration in 17 areas of Wales, and the Scottish Land Commission consult on new powers for its local authorities to intervene and acquire neglected and derelict buildings and land in their town centres. I’m also looking forward to hearing how the Vacant Land Levy has worked in Ireland. It all helps to accelerate the pace of positive change.

As for planning policy catching up, it’s about getting to grips with the hollowing out that will continue to come our way as the big retail floor plates contract and the town centre offer adjusts. Policy takes time to work but when we prepared a regeneration masterplan for Belfast recently, we placed the principle of a ‘liveable city’ at the heart of the city centre regeneration strategy; defining a suite of policies to support living in the middle, involving policies for childhood, minimum apartments sizes so that families can flourish, new cycling and walking infrastructure everywhere, space for play, new health and social care infrastructure, and the development of a culture and arts offer to keep the vibe you would expect in a regional capital alive and well. Councils like Belfast, Manchester (with their push to maintain city centre schools) and Trafford (with their dedicated ‘Town Teams’) are working hard at their city centre agendas and are producing impressive results.

Trouble is that it’s the midsize town that really suffers most. This is where the retail change is most evident and where new pollination of spaces and buildings is hardest to achieve. This is where councils need to step in with assertive approaches towards placemaking with the emphasis on the experience of the place rather than the retail product line – but house builders and investors will not touch vacancy in backlands and upper floors because it’s just too complicated and costly. Councils need more powers to intervene and assemble sites and buildings for reuse and we may need new primary legislation for this. The case is overwhelming for both direct intervention like this and the fundamental reform of the rates system to make the new retail landscape viable and sustainable.

Finally, to help with all of the above in terms of developing our thinking on the ‘liveable city’ agenda, there are two leading themes being explored at next week’s Academy of Urbanism’s Congress in Cork that I think can offer a real insight into the renaissance of our town centres - one is on urban childhoods and the other is on food in the city. The urban childhood theme is about creating urban environments that offer streets, spaces and nature – for all ages, abilities and backgrounds to enjoy together. This will provide a vital insight as to how our city centres can be reconfigured to produce genuine vibrancy. The food in the city theme deals with the growing importance of local food in destination development. Not just as a good economic development idea to help pollinate retail spaces with locally sourced produce, this is a way to increase local jobs, support farm incomes, keep value circulating regionally and, above all, to supply healthy, traceable and sustainable food to urban residents. A useful insight for those thinking of developing a food strategy for their cities which I think is a vital element in nurturing distinctiveness and difference. Just look at the likes of Shrewsbury and Altrincham (Trafford) where we now have successful food retail in the centre filling previously empty units which has been driven by the increase in residents living in the town centre.

Get along to Cork next week... it's a city on the rise.

Paul McTernan, Technical Director, SLR Consulting

About the author: Paul McTernan, MIPI, MRTPI, FRICS - Paul leads SLR’s Planning & Regeneration team working across the company’s regeneration portfolio in Ireland and the UK. His team’s recent work has been acknowledged at national awards from the Irish Planning Institute 2018 and 2016, The Planning & Placemaking Awards, London 2016 and 2014, The Scottish Awards for Quality in Planning 2015 and the RTPI Planning for Excellence Awards, 2017 and 2015. Paul and his team can be contacted at pmcternan@slrconsulting.com, Tel 0044 78705 66659.

Key Contacts:

Paul McTernan

0044 78705 66659

Europe