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Retail Tuesday 19th April 2016

Town centres: Time to be unified not fragmented

by Liz Peace, BPF Fragmented Ownership Group

Town centres: Time to be unified not fragmented

The British Property Federation has produced a ground-breaking report which suggests bold initiatives to address the problems of our town centres. Liz Peace reports on the background to the research and why it is required reading for anyone with a town centre stakeholding.

Liz Peace

There are significant macro-economic forces putting pressure on our town centres – the pace of which is increasing – including retail portfolio restructuring, changing consumer behaviours and aspirations and, not least, e-commerce and the internet. 

The result is that many retailers need fewer outlets (and in fewer towns, focused in bigger boxes, often in bigger centres); some retailers are not surviving at all; some don’t need physical space; and, as a nation, there are simply more shops than we need. 

Together, these trends are posing challenges to the ability of town and city centres to deliver space suited to demand; to secure a better occupier line-up and to improve the overall experience for customers and communities. There are too many town centres where vacancies are high, performance is sub-optimal, and the retail experience is poor.

Many parts of our town centres look tired and much of the environment is simply not delivering the right sort of experience to meet new and different demands that may no longer have traditional retail at their core. Indeed, communities will often be looking for a wholly-different range of services with a greater emphasis on entertainment and leisure, living, learning and local services, as well as business. Our High Streets may have been shaped by the past but they are now trapped in their current configurations and are often in poor shape to face the future. 

Securing successful town and city centres remains high on the national – and local – agenda. Since the 2011 Portas Review, much activity has centred on facilities management, like ‘crime and grime’ issues, which is welcome and beneficial, but is unable to tackle underlying structural problems and the necessary degree of change.

Town centres can and should be a vital social centre for communities. They can be an engine for economic growth through the encouragement and empowerment of new local businesses. And they could also provide a significant amount of space for urgently-needed housing, which would have the added benefit of bringing to life locations that often become inhospitable ghost towns in the evening. 

All of this suggests that we need to be looking for fundamental structural change in our town centres: they need to be about more than retail and they need to be helped to adapt to this fundamental change in role. 

Working with Peter Brett Associates, Citicentric and Bond Dickinson, the British Property Federation has produced a report entitled Town centre investment zones: getting investment back into the High Street* which examines how investment can be encouraged into town centres to bring about a change of role from being purely retail focussed to becoming social centres, engines of economic growth and new, exciting residential locations. 

The central barrier to this change of role is the fragmented nature of property ownership in most town centres. This makes effective ‘curation’ of town centres difficult and the assembly of land necessary to deliver widespread new use, particularly residential, virtually impossible. The solution advocated in the report is the adoption of an asset management approach – Town Centre Investment Management (TCIM). Using over 20 case studies, where such an approach has proved successful, and applying the principles to three pilot feasibility studies which appraise real properties in Dartford, Weston-Super-Mare and Melton Mowbray, the study tests the viability of the concept and its funding potential. 

The conclusion is that the concept can be made to work and that it should be adopted and taken further by both national and local government. The report also shows that a range of existing initiatives such as localisms, Business Improvement Districts and Business Neighbourhoods can be utilised to build consensus and leadership around the need for, and delivery of, significant structural change. 

The report also proposes that the TCIM asset management approach would be enhanced if it were accompanied by the creation of Town Centre Investment Zones which would have many of the incentives and advantages of Enterprise and Housing Zones and which would in turn provide a better focus for investment and a strong signal of Government commitment.

TCIM asset management will not be easy to implement and will require many different agencies to work together to deliver something that has only ever been achieved before where there is already single ownership. But, in the opinion of the study team and the steering group which oversaw this work, it offers the only real solution to a range of problems with our high streets and town centres that have so far only been tinkered with and never solved. So for anyone who has a stakeholding in a UK town centre, I would suggest that the report is required reading and would urge you to engage in the debate that it is generating.

*’Town centre investment zones: getting investment back into the High Street’ can be downloaded from bpf.org.uk