The evidence of change is already to be found in the steady decline of the retail sector; the closures of former High Street giants like Debenhams and the Arcadia group, and before that stores such as Mothercare.
And it isn’t simply that retail sales have increasingly migrated online, although that is a factor. Many are now arguing that communities are looking to town centres to be more than just shopping streets.
Faced with the increasing number of boarded up shops and vacant office premises, the newest “sound bite” from politicians and policy makers in response to the impact of COVID-19 is “build back better”.
The question is: What does that mean? One thing most commentators are clear about is that it doesn’t mean adopting a “new shops for old” approach.
So, what comes next, and more importantly, who should decide? This is important because how our town centres evolve will depend, ultimately, on who is making the decisions, who is driving change.
Town Centres should exist to serve their local communities which means, as far as Bill Grimsey is concerned, they should revert to what they used to be, community hubs.
“incorporating health, housing, arts, education, entertainment, leisure, business/office space, as well as some shops, while developing a unique selling proposition”. The Grimsey review 2
All town and city centres are different in terms of history, geography, economy, demography and culture and so adopting a one size fits all approach to re-imagining town centres is not going to work. However, left to central government based in London, many fear that this is exactly what will happen. And, so far, the range of solutions generated by central government are less than inspiring.
Since 2015, the Government has been pursuing the deregulation of an important aspect of town planning, Permitted Development Rights. What this means is that developers can ignore minimum space standards, access to natural light, adequate ventilation and fire protection, the health and safety of occupants and amenities like safe play areas for children. Nor do not need to consider the carbon footprint of the building or even if the site is wholly unsuitable for housing, which many of the industrial and storage sites are.
This doesn’t seem like building back better, and in any case simply replacing unwanted retail units with housing of dubious quality won’t re-invigorate our town centres. Instead it will result in a different land use pattern but monocultural all the same.
The High Street Task Force commissioned by the government in 2018 holds more promise with its financial support and 150 or so high street “experts” on hand to act as mentors/advisors to local authorities as they seek to redevelop their town centres.
But this is still in essence a “top down” approach to re-developing town centres, one which starts from the premise that the experts from elsewhere know best what a local community needs.
However, local problems require local solutions and that means devolving decision making to local councils, local business organisations, pressure groups and individuals within the local community. Shouldn’t the role of central government should be to monitor and support?
“we need to see “a massive shift in power away from central government to local communities and a renewed focus on localism. Local people must be empowered to redesign their own high streets and have a say on the businesses, services and amenities that occupy it.” Grimsey Review COVID supplement.