Market Insight

Town centre repurposing – it starts with a sense of place and purpose

February 7, 2023
Centenary Square, Birmingham
Following the recent publication of data from Centre for Cities exploring the recovery of the UK high street from the Covid-19 pandemic, it was worrying to see that four of the eleven towns and cities where we are based, feature in the bottom ten for overall footfall.

Reading, Slough, Birmingham and London all appeared and, whilst it is no surprise that our towns and cities suffered as a result of the pandemic, it is clear that some are experiencing a return to pre-pandemic activity faster than others.

In the first of our series of articles exploring the theme of town centre repurposing, Managing Partner, Matthew Samuel-Camps, discusses the core challenges our town centres face in their recovery – starting with the need to take back a sense of place and purpose.

It is no secret that our town centres are experiencing an existential threat. Their degeneration, alongside the demise of the UK high street has accelerated over the past decade, catalysed by the pandemic.

Swiftly followed by the worst cost of living crisis since the 1950s and the resulting consumer squeeze, together with the energy crisis, rising business rates, changes to permitted development (PDR), and forthcoming EPC Regulations – we have the perfect town centre storm.

But what are we actually going to do about it?

Additional planning rights under permitted development (PDR) have seen larger retailers repurpose space in favour of other uses such as offices or residential – a trend which will likely continue in 2023, as the cost-of-living crisis prevails.

Indeed, the Levelling Up Fund recently awarded £20m to such a scheme in the East Midlands, which will see the former Beales department store transform into an office space and civic hub.

However, whilst it is all good and well to pivot redundant retail formats to support local supply gaps, planning change of use does not address the overarching question around just what the purpose of today’s town centres is.

Leading by example – Midlands

Our towns used to have a commercial heart focused on retail, surrounded by concentric rings with other uses – from offices, to residential. But it is clear this model no longer works.

Hybrid working and changing shopping and leisure experiences have accelerated the reduction in town centre footfall, which in turn has reduced spend in our towns. This will impact investment in the urban fabric, transport and infrastructure. We simply aren’t using our towns for the same reasons as we once were, so how do they need to change to be fit for the future?

To answer this, we need complete step-change in our town centre thinking, founded on truly innovative ideas, if we are to deliver back a sense of place and purpose to our towns. It is less about what they once were, and more about what they can be.

Town centres needs to be repositioned to create an holistic proposition which brings back a sense of place, creating a unique offer rather than the homogeneity we have come to know.

Transport and infrastructure are core to this – how can we make it easier for people to access our towns and cities?

Living in and visiting our towns and cities is an integrated experience which has to compete with the relative ease and convenience of out of town complexes, as well as the impact that the internet has had – creating the 20 minute neighbourhood, often at the expense of the town centre.

To address all of these challenges, we need to research and collaborate. Local authorities, as custodians of much of the urban environment, need to ask themselves “what is our town centre’s purpose and how well does it fulfil that role” as well as canvassing the views of the local community, businesses and other stakeholders to ensure a unique town centre offer.

However, as easy as it is to say that in principle, the practicalities are more challenging, with disparate land ownership making it difficult for local authorities to drive town centre repurposing.

To improve footfall in our towns, a variety of housing offer, whether through build-to-rent or otherwise, needs to play a role, but there also needs to be an attractive, different and compelling retail, cultural and leisure offer, to attract people to visit and stay, as well as appropriate commercial provision to meet our new hybrid norm.

Whist a fine balance to achieve, what we have is the first opportunity in a generation, to transform our towns – to move away from the concentration on retail homogeneity we’ve fallen foul of in recent years, and create a place of purpose and vibrancy once more.

Differentiation is key 

But how can local authorities facilitate additional independent traders who are more agile in their offer, providing that difference which sets Preston apart from, say, Manchester?

When it comes to differentiation, the larger metropolitan areas like Bristol, Southampton and Birmingham are key satellite cities where businesses naturally gravitate to, and they are a step ahead in this regard, with detailed city plans in place to guide them.

Secondary towns – such as Preston, Bolton, Blackburn – are challenger areas, and have a great opportunity to develop a unique competitive advantage over their Mancunian counterpart – with the right funding.

Yet where will local authorities, as the owners of lots of public realm and land in our town centres, get the necessary funding from? Whilst the Levelling Up Fund promised potential, it was disappointing to see how few of the schemes that were successful, focused on town centre reinvigoration.

Despite this, it was pleasing to see Bournemouth, where we opened an office two years ago, receive £18.2m in Levelling Up Funding to revitalise the Bournemouth and Poole seafront. This, together with the recent planning approval for a £200m redevelopment of a town centre site there, will have a positive impact on the town’s future.

Of course, there were many schemes of merit which were not so lucky, including the proposed £18.5m town centre regeneration bid for Burgess Hill.

Progress is being made

Thankfully, we are already starting to see seeing town centre regeneration and repurposing progress on the ground already.

For towns like Slough which was in the bottom ten towns for footfall in 2022, its town centre redevelopment – which at £650m is one of the UK’s largest programmes of regeneration – will undoubtedly help the town’s cause.

Slough Urban Renewal, together with Slough Borough Council and Muse Developments are working up plans for the comprehensive regeneration of the former Thames Valley University (TVU) site, currently named North West Quadrant in central Slough, to deliver 1,400 homes, 250,000 sq ft of commercial space, 45,000 sq ft of ancillary leisure and retail as well as 150,000 sq ft of cultural facilities.

Alongside this, is a planned scheme for the redevelopment of the Queensmere and Observatory shopping centres in Slough, set to be delivered by British Land and British Land and Abu Dhabi Investment Authority.

The phased development of 2,500 dwellings and up to 50,000 sq ft of office space in Slough town centre will support the repurposing of the town centre for other uses beyond retail.

For Reading, which also featured in the bottom ten for footfall, several key developments look set to deliver significant positive change – from the continued delivery of Station Hill, to the prospect of a market square by Thackery Group which will see the creation of a hub which would play host to Christmas markets, live theatre, events and independent street food vendors.

The town also received £19.1 million in ‘Levelling Up’ funding to revitalise the town’s Hexagon theatre and create a new library.

Let’s just hope that the planning process can keep pace – but more on that in our forthcoming article series which continues to explore the challenges, opportunities and wider future of our town centres.

In the meantime, our next article will explore the difference between town centre regeneration and town centre repurposing.