The challenges facing our high streets are well known. Brexit, squeezed incomes, business rates, major retail failures, online retail, unseasonably cold weather – the list goes on.
While it’s natural to pick at problems – the rise of online shopping, the lack of parking and inadequacies in the planning system – I believe in inspiring people to seize an opportunity to collaborate and innovate to embrace the change that’s necessary.
Through the BPF Futures Challenge, we have thrown down the gauntlet to young professionals with 10 years or less of experience in our industry. In partnership with the Office for Government Property and the British Property Federation, we are putting real estate’s future leaders at the heart of solving one of the biggest challenges facing our towns and cities: how to breathe new life into urban centres.
This month, up to 80 of these young real estate professionals from both public and private sectors are taking part in the challenge at our offices in Victoria.
Supported by a panel of experts in the fields of design, planning, development, retail and innovation, they will compete in teams to come up with an idea to stimulate regeneration in a chosen local area. The winning team will see their idea piloted through the government’s One Public Estate programme, with a £100,000 package of support to help turn their vision into reality.
The strength of a town centre is found in the variety of people who congregate there. Those who are succeeding and the businesses that are thriving in today’s retail climate are cafés, beauty salons, bookshops and independent stores. These may be retailers, but often they are also meeting places that allow us to connect, to remember that we are part of a community and to provide human interaction.
For all the troubles high streets are enduring, they still have a lot to offer and these young professionals with innovative ideas may well have the answer.
However, it is not a one-size-fits-all solution to saving our high streets. Each and every town centre is hyper-localised and has its own individual challenges to overcome, its own brand to discover. Collaborative working with the private and public sectors and making the most of each other’s skills and expertise, is essential – as is community involvement. Local people with a good understanding of everyday life in the area will be in the best position to help identify the elements that will make a positive difference to the community.
Fundamentally, I believe that our high streets are uniquely placed to deliver something new, for everyone. They can be lively, dynamic and social places that give a sense of belonging, spirit and trust to a community: a sense that has, in recent times, been eroded to the point where it threatens the very nature of collaborative society.
The problems facing our high streets are complicated and sometimes overwhelming, but they are also not impossible – we can turn things around. With imagination and the audacity to put plans into action, we can create places that will serve their communities for years to come.
Matthew Weiner is chief executive of U+I