Back in 2005, a report by English Heritage suggested that locating retail in a quirky heritage building actually increased its appeal and raised footfall, which made it sound as if this could be a really good way of breathing some new life into our declining high streets.
The problem, of course, is that the retail properties in a single high street tend to be owned by many different landlords who will be reluctant to invest in a failing area where footfall and profit are declining.
A 2016 BPF report from a working group that I chaired suggested that Town Centre Investment Zones (TCIZs) were the answer – but making a TCIZ happen still needs a ringmaster and possibly also some core funding. And that is where the idea of using the heritage world in the ringmaster role comes in.
One of the best examples is Historic Coventry Trust, which was founded in 2011 to save an individual building, the Coventry Charterhouse. Under the energetic chairmanship of a highly successful property developer, Ian Harrabin, it has now expanded to cover some 24 heritage assets.
Heritage can get a disparate group of people thinking creatively about how to save town centres
One of its flagship programmes is centred around The Burges, a medieval street that once ran north from Coventry’s marketplace. This was a run-down area with properties in poor condition and tenants whose businesses were struggling. The trust worked closely with the local authority, the Business Improvement District and local owners and businesses to develop a strategic plan for the repair and restoration of the buildings.
Starting in February 2020, the area has been completely transformed, with new roofs, replaced windows and restored historic shopfronts.
At least seven of the occupier businesses have invested in major refurbishment to complement the scheme. The result (pictured) is a buzzy, attractive and historic streetscape with enough interesting retail offerings to satisfy even the most discerning shoppers and visitors.
The project did benefit from public funding – it was the national demonstrator project for Historic England’s £93m High Street Heritage Action Zone programme. It also received money from the Architectural Heritage Fund’s Heritage Development Trust (HDT) programme, which supported organisations that could take on the ownership of multiple historic buildings in town centres to create modern uses that meet community needs and support economic development.
In addition to Coventry, there are already well established HDTs in Great Yarmouth, Tyne and Wear and the Rossendale Valley in Lancashire, with three new ones in Hastings, Ramsgate and Lincolnshire.
Now, I don’t think for a moment that heritage assets will solve all the problems of our high streets, but what I think Coventry has shown is that in some situations heritage can be the catalyst for getting a disparate group of people to start thinking creatively – and collectively – about how to save a town centre streetscape.
The solution won’t always be retail – it could just as easily involve cultural and other uses. But the overriding need is for there to be someone or some organisation that is able to be the ringmaster – to put together a plan, access public and private funding and then drive implementation.
If heritage provides the catalyst for binding all those different interests together, then the real estate owners and occupiers in town centres and high streets should embrace it.
By the way, I should have perhaps mentioned that I do have a vested interest in all this, being the current chair of the Architectural Heritage Fund.
But I am about to stand down, so if there is a real estate enthusiast out there who appreciates the role that old buildings can play in regeneration and social improvement, then this would be a great gig for you.
Do get in touch via Property Week if you are interested – and I am sure Ian Harrabin would corroborate my enthusiastic view of how heritage and real estate can help each other.
Liz Peace is chair of a number of real estate organisations, including the Architectural Heritage Fund and Real Estate Balance