29.William Grimsey, Chair of The Grimsey Review and The Grimsey Review 2, told us that “the 21st century town is about an activity-based community gathering place”. This description reflects much of the evidence we heard and we consider that it offers some broad principles for high streets and town centres to follow for the future. We also received a great deal of evidence about the need for high streets and town centres to create their own identity, based on local characteristics—for example, “heritage, history and culture”—and to “develop in line with the DNA or personality of the area and the community”. Again, Mr Grimsey summed things up well: “There is no silver bullet and there is no single solution […] There are some guidelines, but the solutions are local”.
30.As we have discussed, one of the systemic issues is that our high streets and town centres are too retail-focused and have ‘too much retail’. We heard that this needed to be “unpicked”. Mr Grimsey said “retail is not the main anchor any more for the 21st century, and it needs to be replaced with other activities”. Trafford Council was doing this by “keep[ing] the retail core to a reasonable size” and “encourag[ing] a more compact town centre, so that footfall does not have as far to go, to encourage that spend”. Even retailers agreed, Tony Ginty of Marks and Spencer said that:
Town centres cannot rely on retailing as they have done in the past. They will only succeed in the future if they get the right balance between retailing, leisure, hospitality, health, social care, services and indeed the residential links.
The activities outlined by Mr Ginty reflect much of the evidence we heard. For example, Wiltshire Council said that what brings people into towns is “mainly employment, cinemas, parks, libraries, events, festivals, leisure activities and other services”. They said they were investing £80 million in locating public services closer to the town centre. Professor Cathy Parker, Chair of the Institute of Place Management, told us that “anything that generates footfall and is congruent with the overall offer is a good thing to have”.
31.The representatives of the two cinema chains from whom we took evidence saw their cinemas as the hubs of town centres in the future. Tim Richards, Chief Executive of Vue International, said this was because “We are a safe harbour. We create jobs. We create a safe destination hub for families and others”. We heard that pubs have a similar potential; Simon Emeny, Chief Executive of Fuller’s, said he wanted to see areas “filled with community interest” and the pub at the “hub of social community”.
32.We heard that investing in the arts and culture and events would create opportunities for interaction, as would other “cultural anchors”, such as theatres, libraries and museums. We learnt that Stockton Council had devised a year-round programme of events to keep bringing local people and those from further afield into the town.
33.Reference was often made to the need to create more residential accommodation in town centres. Richard Roe of Trafford Council said this could be of real benefit to a place as you “bring in potential spend and activity”. And the Royal Town Planning Institute said it was “well documented” that this could “increas[e] footfall and improv[e] vitality”. Others, however, were concerned that increasing residential occupancy could have the opposite effect; for example, the Federation of Small Businesses who were concerned about the impact on local economic activity: “fewer commercial units puts pressure on those remaining, in terms of demand for commercial space, the affordability of space and also reduced footfall”. In 2015, the Government introduced a Permitted Development Right, allowing for change of use without planning permission from retail and office to residential. We discuss the impact of this on high streets and town centres in chapter four.
34.High streets and town centres are at the heart of the community and, as Jake Berry, the MHCLG Minister for the Northern Powerhouse and Local Growth, put it, are our “original social network”. London Councils described how they fulfil this role:
[They] provide a space in which communities are able to mix freely. This is especially important for more vulnerable or isolated groups, such the elderly, young people and recent immigrants, who are all more likely to rely on the ‘informal offer’ that social infrastructure and shops on the high streets provide. This can be moments as simple as sharing a conversation or as impactful as being made aware of job opportunities in the area […] High streets and town centres act as a focal point for community activity, and are part of how areas perceive and understand themselves.
35.We were told that high streets and town centres needed to become “the intersection of human life and activity”, particularly when, as identified by Sir John Timpson, Chairman of the Expert Panel, “in an internet age […] there is going to be less and less face-to-face communication [and] humans want places to meet. Mr Grimsey expanded on this, saying that they could be “community and public health assets”:
Providing public space that is inclusive of people of all backgrounds and ages, and is accessible to people of all levels of mobility. They can provide a centre for people to gather, to feel relaxed and to connect with others socially. They are therefore important both for physical and mental wellbeing.
Many of the arts, cultural and other activities described above promote social interaction and foster a sense of community. In addition, Joe Harrison, Chief Executive at NMTF, told us that “markets have “tremendous community value. There is buy-in [for them] from the community and people wanting to uphold community values within the places where they live”.
36.Quite simply, the activities and community interaction described above will need a central place in which to happen: “public spaces for gathering and socialising, and parks and green spaces for recreation and wellbeing”. We saw this first-hand on our visit to Stockton-on-Tees where the high street had been redesigned to create a flexible ‘amphitheatre-style’ performance space with sound and lighting for staging events but which also served as a central focal and meeting point for people to gather or relax. Altrincham, winner of the 2018 Great British High Street ‘town centre’ award, has also invested in the public realm—with “landscaping, street furniture and planting […], ‘Enhanced/Pedestrian Prioritised Streets’”—which we heard had proven very beneficial.
37.While we can respond to the current challenges and create a new role for high streets and town centres, as the Association of Town and City Management pointed out, potentially “radical and far-reaching change” still lies ahead:
Through the growth of the Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence, robotics, digital traceability, augmented and virtual reality. By 2030, there will be significant development in autonomous vehicles and drones, 3D printing, and Blockchain. Each development on its own is significant, together they will be revolutionary.
Given this, any plans made now must build in flexibility to respond to changes still to come and ensure that places are “future proof”. Professor Cathy Parker of the Institute of Place Management summed up the necessary approach as being “like gardening […] it is constant”.
38.We are convinced that high streets and town centres will survive, and thrive, in 2030 if they adapt, becoming activity-based community gathering places where retail is a smaller part of a wider range of uses and activities. Green space, leisure, arts and culture and health and social care services must combine with housing to create a space that is the “intersection of human life and activity” based primarily on social interactions rather than financial transactions. Individual areas will need to identify the mix that best suits their specific characteristics, local strengths, culture and heritage. Fundamentally, community must be at the heart of all high streets and town centres in 2030.
73 . See also British Retail Consortium ()
74 Wiltshire Council ()
78 Association of Town & City Management ()
80 Royal Town Planning Institution ()
81 The Federation of Small Businesses ()
83 London Councils ()
84 Association of Town & City Management ()
88 Urban Pollinators Ltd ()
89 Great British High Street 2018, , accessed 7 February 2019
90 . See also Royal Town Planning Institute ()
91 Association of Town & City Management ()
Published: 21 February 2019