Market Insight

Town centre regeneration and repurposing – what’s the difference?

March 23, 2023
There is, rightly, a lot of talk about the need to bring new life back to our town centres, but how is this being achieved? Through regeneration, repurposing or both? And what is the difference between the two?

We spoke to Managing Partner, Matthew Samuel-Camps, to find out.

Town centre regeneration is about breathing life back into something for ostensibly the same use, whereas repurposing is more forward-looking – it’s about moving our town centres onto other, more viable, purposes.

Whist town centre regeneration absolutely has its place, it is important to recognise that it isn’t the only answer.

So, before we even start to look at town regeneration, it is important to look at the sustainability of the existing uses first, and how they fit in to the needs of a particular town centre.

Short term resuscitation

When we talk about regenerating town centres, it typically involves a combination of physical development, economic development and community engagement to essentially resuscitate a town.

This can include everything from improving public spaces and infrastructure, to creating new parks and renovating existing, or constructing new buildings – both commercial and residential.

However, in our experience, when it comes to schemes that promote the regeneration of town centres, many have fallen foul of simply replacing failed concepts such as retail, with more of the same, without addressing the question of why it failed in the first place.

Indeed, in some quarters there has been a desire to go back to halcyon days of the 1960s, without acknowledging that the principle reason those town centres existed in the way that they did, has now irrevocably moved on.

The same could be said of what people say they want to see in their town centres, which tends to be quite nostalgic and backward looking. It is generally inconsistent with their own present behaviours which are founded in online shopping and convenience and are much more forward-looking. Often the two don’t always marry up, nor the causal link considered.

The real impact of our desire for consumer convenience didn’t start during the pandemic, it came with the birth of out-of-town retail parks in the 1980s, which introduced large scale shopping and leisure convenience for the first time.

The growth of the internet has accelerated our ability to purchase goods and services without physically being present, at a phenomenal rate – far faster than we have been able to pivot our town centres. The approach has typically been to patch them up through piecemeal regeneration, paid for by the likes of the Levelling Up Fund, rather than address the fundamental shift in needs and purpose.

Whilst doing something to polish the façades of those towns lucky enough to qualify for funding, funds such as the Levelling Up Fund often don’t get to the root of the problem.

This is because a lot of the applications are for short term fixes, instead of addressing the reasons our town centres are failing in the first place, and starting from a sustainable base position.

What we need is a comprehensive approach to this question, encompassing everything from changing retail, leisure and work patterns, to travel, infrastructure, convenience and culture.

Some of the answers lie with repurposing, embodying that more holistic approach founded on what a town centre is for, not just for today but with futureproofing in mind, and then working outwards from there.

Matthew Samuel-Camps, Managing Partner.

Acceptance, differentiation, and gain

Repurposing our town centres can be a cost-effective way to revitalise town centres and create new opportunities for economic and community development.

It is more about acceptance, differentiation, and gain – acceptance that the extent of retail in our town centres needs to shift and become less homogenous, with in-depth research into how we use our town centres which will inform what we could gain through differentiation.

We have to accept that not every town centre can offer the same, and nor should it. Yet, at the moment, many town centre offers are similar. Revisiting the identity of our towns and cities and embracing their heritage and differentiators should be taken into account.

We need a much more fluid planning structure – both at local government and national level – with a long-term political commitment to deliver change.

Following the demise of many of our town centre anchor stores, a number are now being repurposed for other uses such as residential or offices, where there may be a present demand.

However, what that won’t do is replace the footfall, vibrancy and the draw of the original use and support the occupiers immediately surrounding them in the same way.

So, as the retail element of our town centres naturally declines, we must seek to reintroduce the animation and vitality that our town centres once enjoyed – perhaps through an enhanced cultural offer.

The arts and culture have an integral role to play in attracting people into our town centres, to offer something distinctive and unique. Indeed, the arts lie at the heart of regional economic growth, yet local councils have been forced to cut arts spending by £860m, or 38.5 per cent, in real terms, since 2010.

Whether we’re talking about regeneration or repurposing of our town centres, one thing is clear – there must be a longer-term view. Simply changing one component of a larger challenge won’t help.

We aren’t being as creative as we could in our thinking – we need more strategic, longer-term insight and much of this is limited by political and economic instability.

The idea of regional mayors is a good one because it devolves authority to the right level, but its Achilles heel is that the role requires short-term, politically expedient solutions to an issue that requires a long-term strategy – one which can often take years to deliver.

And whilst further devolution could help, as was announced in the Spring Budget, this requires coordination to avoid creating regional silos which, for the overall economy, is a difficult circle to square.

Let’s be brave

It will take brave public leadership to really address the challenge facing our town centres.

Whilst our local authorities are the catalysts, as custodians and curators of our towns and cities, the private sector must recognise the role it has to play in stimulating new and innovative ideas – not to mention our universities and the importance of tapping into the research they’re doing, to inform the evolution of our urban centres.

Without doubt, this is a pivotal moment for our town centres and there are lots of interwoven challenges that need to be addressed and taken head-on.

But this is also a moment of significant opportunity – not just to resuscitate or breathe new life into our towns, but to completely transform the very idea of them, to make sure they are fit for our future needs.

For more information about how Vail Williams can support you with a proposed town centre regeneration or repurposing scheme, get in touch.