99.High streets and town centres need to be curated, and their regeneration planned, in accordance with a strategy. This should be formed around the broad principles we considered in chapter two: activities; community; places to gather and future proofing. The Local Plan, the local authority’s overarching planning document, which sets the “long-term, overall, strategic direction” for an area over a 15-year period and is produced in consultation with the community is a key vehicle for this. In addition, it has an important, related role in attracting private sector development and “getting them interested in why that place is low-risk but high-potential“.
100.We heard, however, that the lengthy plan-making process meant that Local Plans were often “geared to the market as it was five years ago”. This poses a problem in the context of high streets and town centres where rapid changes are underway, with the practical implications being that the plan may no longer meet the challenges faced. East Riding of Yorkshire Council said it was having to fully review the retail policies in its Local Plan which needed updating in line with the market and lifestyles. To guard against this, we were told that Local Plans needed “continuous review and adjustment” and be constructed in such a way as to have “flexibility to take these different changes into account”.
101.Supplementary planning documents (SPDs) sit alongside the Local Plan and focus on small geographical areas or specific issues. Craig Rowbottom of Birmingham City Council suggested that these documents should contain the detail of high street and town centre strategies, and said that this was the approach taken by his council. Although he supported the use of the Local Plan, Peter Geraghty of ADEPT suggested taking a “particular approach to town centres, if there is an added degree of flexibility to allow policies to flex and change”. Julian Dobson of Urban Pollinators suggested that an overarching strategy, sitting above Local Plans and SPDs, was needed:
You need something that is much more punchy and visionary for your towns and communities as a whole, that says, “This is the direction we aspire to go in. We realise that all sorts of things might happen on the way that will derail that vision and it will need to flex and accommodate those.” You need something that sets a goal and an aspiration, and the local plans, because they are trying to do so many things in such detail, are not able to do that.
102.Whatever form it takes, the plan, strategy or vision for a high street or town centre should be “embedded […] in the place” and formed around the “local narrative”. Although often referred to as “place branding”, we were told that it was much more than a “just a branding exercise”, requiring “authenticity” and input and backing from the public, private and community sectors, without which it risked being a “cynical exercise”. We heard that “place branding can be right, but you have to have something that you can brand”.
103.Altrincham, which has had a market since 1290, decided to brand itself as “a modern market town” and, because this was a brand that “everyone understood”, it had proven very successful. However, as Richard Roe of Trafford Council cautioned, “you cannot just lift it, shift it and say the model that worked there can just be put down somewhere else […]. The hook will be something different”. For Malton in North Yorkshire, the hook was food. Because of its significant holding in the town centre, the Fitzwilliam Malton Estate had played a key role in leading the regeneration of the town which had included developing a reputation for good food. Roddy Bushell, the former Estate Manager said:
Towns need […] to perk up, work out what they can do well, do it and wave a flag. Malton chose food, because it had credibility in food production and food retail, and that has been incredibly helpful for people to understand what is going on; otherwise, it is very difficult to focus people on doing that.
104.Meanwhile, we heard that towns needed to “understand what function [they] [are] playing, not just in [their] local catchment but also how [they] relate to other locations”. This is an important point: if, for example, too many nearby towns chose food as a theme, they would be in direct competition with one another. It is also relevant to the retail offer; as Edward Woodall of the Association of Convenience Stores explained in the future a “hierarchy” would develop:
Big retailers are going to consolidate […] stores, and probably push them into centres and those top hierarchy towns. Smaller, secondary towns are going to offer more opportunities for independent businesses to offer something a bit more different and diverse, which has a different convenience or experience overall.
This also applies to other events and activities designed to attract people into towns from a wider regional area.
105.It was not evident, however, that these strategic, regional-level discussions were consistently taking place. Tony Ginty of Marks and Spencer said that “a greater level of co-operation between individual local authorities would be massively helpful. There is a tendency to look after your own patch […] but […] some things […] transcend those patches”. The evidence from Thame Town Council is a good example of this:
Our neighbouring planning authority’s evidence base, including their Settlement Hierarchy report declares that 1,200 homes, committed, allocated or under construction, will be reliant on Thame’s retail, service, education and health infrastructure yet no conversation has been sought by neighbouring planning authorities about whether Thame can meet their needs […] The retail studies that underpin each authority’s evidence do not reflect the other authority’s housing allocations, significantly under reporting the impact on Thame’s retail and service sector.
Aided by the merging of council boundaries, Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority said they planned to produce an industrial strategy which would consider “how their towns were connected with each other, as well as being economic hubs in their own right”.
106.Change is happening at a rapid rate in high streets and town centres and, as currently formulated, Local Plans cannot keep up. We note that if online sales continue to grow at their current rate, they could account for around 30% of all retail sales by 2030. A Local Plan created five years ago will therefore be completely out-of-date and, quite simply, useless. Local Plans, which we urge all local authorities to adopt, must be living documents, regularly updated to capture and reflect changing trends, and must be forward looking, anticipating what will happen in five years’ time. We recommend that they should also be supplemented with dynamic strategies covering specific high streets and town centres. In addition, we recommend that all local areas develop an overarching vision setting out the direction for the future of their high streets and town centres. Successful applicants to the Future High Streets Fund bids must have a bold, visionary strategy prepared in consultation with the community.
107.Whatever form it takes, the strategy for the high street should be formed around local characteristics, strengths, culture and heritage and, most importantly, it should have the backing of the public, private and community sectors. In addition, local areas should develop their plans in consultation with the areas around them and consider how high streets and town centres can complement one other within a wider spatial hierarchy.
108.Many local authorities are active in supporting local businesses as part of promoting local economic growth. Stockton Council has an array of such schemes devised to enhance and support retail and further the council’s long-term vision for the town centre. These include grants and business rates discounts for new or expanding businesses occupying vacant space within the town centre, a mentoring and start-up scheme and an ‘Enterprise Arcade’ for fledgling retail businesses.
109.All local authorities may grant business rates discounts in accordance with their own criteria as Stockton Council has done but, unlike the reliefs granted by the Government which are fully reimbursed, local authorities bear 50% of the costs. Accordingly, the LGA said that “most councils will need to consider the affordability of providing such targeted support”, and Newcastle-under-Lyme Business Improvement District said that, for its local authority, provision of such a discount would have a consequent impact on spending on services.
110.We were particularly impressed with Stockton’s Enterprise Arcade which we visited on our tour around the town. It provides an ‘incubating’ space for up to 16 retailers who are new in business, allowing them to test trading in a supportive, low-cost, low-risk environment. We heard that it had played a role in establishing several independent local retailers which had gone on to diversify the retail offer in the town centre and were encouraging footfall.
111.Local authorities should consider the long-term benefits for their high streets and town centres of providing targeted support to local traders with business rates discounts and other schemes. We were particularly impressed with Stockton’s Enterprise Arcade which supports fledging retail businesses with a view to them diversifying town centre retail once established. We believe that a similar scheme could be successful in many towns. However, we recognise that for many local authorities such spending may not be a priority given the financial pressures under which they are operating and the necessity of prioritising statutory services.
112.For many, particularly in rural areas where people are more reliant on their cars, visiting the high street or town centre entails finding a space and paying a fee. A comparison was often made with out-of-town retail parks which invariably have ample, free parking, thus increasing the competition they pose. Roddy Bushell of Fitzwilliam Malton Estate said that introducing two-hours free parking in the main car park in Malton town centre had been very effective:
It is a signal both to the people who use the town that things have changed—“We want your custom”—and for us it was a signal to the retailers and service providers in the town that the estate was business-like, on their side, and understood the things that impacted on them.
We were told by Kevin Frost of Cineworld that parking was one of the factors his company looked at when opening new cinemas and by retailers that, as well bringing shoppers onto the high street, it encouraged the use of footfall-promoting click and collect.
113.However, we also heard that “two hours of free parking is not the solution in all locations” and that local authorities needed to experiment and collect data to determine whether it was the right intervention for that particular place. The local authorities we heard from were clearly experimenting with different parking charges, assessing their impact on footfall in the town and “try[ing] to strike a balance”. However, we heard it is “difficult to work out that balance […] we do not have the answer”. Furthermore, we note that parking revenue is an important source of income for local authorities: Peter Geraghty of ADEPT said “there is absolutely no doubt about that, and we have to maintain, monitor and enforce proper use of car parks”.
114.Jake Berry, the MHCLG Minister, said that this was an issue for local authorities to determine in consultation with their business community, but that it seemed like “good sense to provide some element of free parking in town centres”. We agree with the Minister that some free parking is bound to have a positive effect on high street footfall. It would also enable towns to compete more effectively with out-of-town retail centres. However, parking is very place specific, depending also on the public transport available. We believe that local authorities should test the impact of different levels of parking charges on footfall and collect data, as well as consulting with local businesses, to understand which interventions will be most effective for that particular place.
115.As discussed in chapter two, wide community collaboration is essential to high street and town centre regeneration. In many places the vehicle for this will be a place partnership. These can take many forms, from informal associations of residents, traders and local government officials to formal organisations such as Business Improvement Districts (BIDs), with successful partnerships combining public, private and voluntary interests.
116.We heard that some areas did not have a partnership, perhaps because they were too small for one to be sustainable or they were just “relying on the goodwill of community activists”. Consequently, in such places it is difficult to achieve the “collective vision and that energy that allows the town centre to evolve”. The Institute of Place Management said that local and national understanding of partnerships was poor, recommending that a national register of BIDs be drawn up and a census of partnerships regularly conducted. We note that the £500,000 Business Improvement Districts Loan Fund, the 11th tranche of which was announced by the Government on 24 January 2019, will have a role in enabling BIDs in new locations to develop.
117.The Institute of Place Management also recommended that more training and support should be provided for place partnerships, highlighting that there were “no standards or requirements for place leaders to join a professional body, undertake training or regular development”. Ojay McDonald, Chief Executive of the Association of Town and City Management, explained why more support was crucial:
Place management is a very challenging industry […] think about the number of things you need to be able to understand to drive forward change within a town centre. You need to understand the retail economy. You need to understand how local government works. You need to have a decent understanding of planning policy, safety and security. Maybe it is things like tourism and how the local economy works, but also how that sits within the broader national economy. When you start putting all these various skillsets together, not least things like stakeholder management as well, there is a lot to understand.
118.In practice, most partnerships take the form of a BID, a partnership between the local authority and local businesses funded by a levy on business ratepayers in the BID area. There are some 300 BIDs in towns and cities across the UK. The funding is ring-fenced for use in that area and can be spent on improvements to the public sphere, including safety measures, cleaning, greenery, transport incentives, marketing and promotions. British BIDs, a membership organisation for BIDs, said that they had moved beyond “crime and grime and street beautifying” and were now working on wider, strategic issues such as curating the high street, engaging in planning issues and developing a cultural offer.
119.The representatives of two BIDs that we spoke to said that their work was orientated to their members’ needs. Christina Rowe, Director of Operations at Bedford BID, said that the BID was “predominantly about generating footfall in the businesses that we have in the town centre” and Jonathan Newman, Town Centre Manager at Great Yarmouth Town Centre Partnership (GYTCP) said that it “exists primarily for the […] business members [….] Much of our delivery is based around a uniform presence within the town centre, crime reduction schemes and a radio link for retailers to use”.
120.William Grimsey, Chairman of The Grimsey Review, told us that “by definition [BIDs] are there to improve business and not necessarily to look at the long-term development of the place” and that they should be replaced by “community improvement districts”, more in line with the evolution of high streets and town centres. We were interested to hear that GYTCP, now a BID for funding reasons, decided to retain the original town centre partnership entity as it was more community facing, running projects and workshops with local groups.
121.The BID member retailers that we spoke to were generally supportive of BIDs, although we heard that their remit should be “extended” and that there should be more sharing of best practice, knowledge and skills between them; Martin Foster of Lakeland Leathers said:
They seem to work in isolation. In Cumbria, there are four different BIDs in operation. […] I know that the BID that they have in Chester seems to be a wee bit more proactive than the one in Northallerton; those are two areas I have seen. I do not see them sharing ideas, sharing resource and working across platforms.
In addition, he said “Financially, they make no sense to me. Take York and its budget; it is £800,000 from its BID. For Kendal, it is £140,000 from its BID. Which of those two cities needs the most help?”.
122.Wide community collaboration is essential to high street and town centre regeneration and, in many local areas, place partnerships will be a key vehicle for this. We are concerned that a truly collective vision will be hard to achieve in areas where they do not exist. While we welcome the recently announced 11th tranche of the Business Improvement District (BID) Loan Fund which could have an important role in enabling BIDs to develop in new locations, we believe the Government should take further steps to encourage wider coverage of place partnerships. To start with, we recommend that the Government creates a register of BIDs and undertakes a census of place partnerships to identify areas without one in place. The Future High Streets Task Force should then play a role in helping areas to establish such a structure.
123.In addition, we recommend that the Task Force facilitates the creation of a local authority-wide network of BIDs and encourages them to share resources, knowledge and expertise with each other. Particular effort should be made to encourage well-funded BIDs to share resources with less well-funded BIDs nearby.
124.We were attracted by the idea that BIDs should be replaced with community improvement districts but recognise that legislative changes might be needed to implement this. We encourage the Government to consider how this might be done and, in the interim, recommend the appointment of community representatives to BID panels in order to encourage a wider, more balanced approach in their work.
216 East Riding of Yorkshire Council ()
217 Urban Pollinators Ltd ()
232 Thame Town Council ()
233 Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority ()
234 Local Government Association ()
235 Newcastle-under-Lyme BID Ltd ()
245 Institute of Place Management ()
249 Institute of Place Management ()
250 MHCLG, , 24 January 2019
251 Institute of Place Management ()
253 British BIDs ()
254 Savills ()
255 British BIDs ()
261 ; ;
262 ; ;
Published: 21 February 2019