How the north west’s town centres can be repositioned for the modern age

Joanna Gabrilatsou and John Lafferty, from JLL’s planning & development team, discuss how collaboration and creativity are key to helping revitalise our high streets

October 30, 2019

High streets have undeniably fallen on hard times of late. Once bustling hubs of community and commerce, the rise of online shopping and one-stop shopping malls has seen the decline of many. 

So how can stakeholders work together to restore town centres to their former glory, and make them success stories for the future?

The importance of an identity…

“Town centres need to deliver different experiences, at different scales, for different communities. There is no one blueprint or ‘one size fits all’ solution – for example, major towns and cities will have very disparate needs to smaller towns”, explains Joanna.

“In the past, these needs weren’t acknowledged, and town centres became clones of one another, causing them to lose their identities.

“Landlords required recognisable, national retail anchors, such as Woolworth’s, BHS, Marks & Spencer and Topshop to drive footfall and meet customer demand. As those larger chains took over, smaller independents couldn’t compete, and so high streets became less dynamic.

“At the same time, bigger northern cities such as Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool were becoming ever-more vibrant, with edgy independent operators cropping up and businesses putting down roots.

“This shift, coupled with a lack of investment from some local authorities and landlords, is a large part of the reason why many smaller town centres became unloved – and people looked to flock to city centres instead.”

and a solid transport system

“Accessible local facilities are a vital component in a successful town centre, and why public transport and infrastructure should remain high on the agenda for local authorities and stakeholders”, Joanna continues. 

This is particularly important for people less reliant on cars, such as the elderly and teenagers. “For those groups of people, it’s crucial to have functioning leisure centres and libraries; restaurants and cinemas, and it’s equally key that they can easily access them through frequent, fast, and affordable transport.”

A new, inclusive era

Despite a relatively rocky past, Joanna believes there is much to be optimistic about when it comes to the future of town centres.

“Local authorities are doing great work, and there’s now a lot of redevelopment happening. We’re currently working with Bolton Council, helping to bring in housing which will make the town centre more vibrant and liveable.

That vibrancy will appeal to younger demographics, whilst elderly and vulnerable members of society will appreciate the accessibility that it affords them.

 “That’s how we must approach town centres moving forward: with real thought and consideration into the individual communities that inhabit them. Cohesive, inclusive developments that service current and future generations should be the priority.”

The perfect storm

John goes into further detail about how local authorities and planning partners are adapting to the current landscape.

“The current landscape is interesting. Local authorities are experiencing a massive reduction in revenue from central government, and so are looking to replace that loss of income by investing in commercial property.

“With their high streets, shopping centres and town centres facing a number of challenges, we’re suggesting to them that they don’t need as much retail to meet consumer demand, and should look to alternative uses such as residential, offices, and hotels.

“There is something of a ‘perfect storm’ happening in the market at the moment; local authorities are in a position where they can borrow at very low interest rates, meaning they can be ultra-competitive in the commercial property market.

“They can buy underperforming retail assets and change their focuses, and the result is a regenerated town centre with a greater vitality and number of uses. That, in turn, is attracting younger people these areas, contributing to a regeneration ripple effect felt throughout the town.

“What’s more, the advantages are more than just commercial. It’s likely that this rejuvenation will lead to health and wellbeing benefits, as we’ll see a decrease on the reliance of cars if residents have immediate access to amenities, and reliable, cheap public transport. An increase in leisure and fitness facilities such as gyms and yoga studios will go hand-in-hand with this.

“This versatility of our local town centres is what will make them truly 21st century-ready. If we have real ‘live/work/play’ environments in these areas, and cater to the night-time economy as well, we can ensure our town centres are not only revitalised, but completely repositioned for modern life.”

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