These are challenging times for the nation’s towns. Step away from prime cities and some of the more affluent commuter towns and the picture is one of urban areas in decline.

Alan harris montagu evans

The 2008 financial crisis, subsequent recession and failure of several major high-street names have all played a part. We have an ageing population and its needs for town centres are changing; Generation Y and those born this century will support our centres but in a different way.

Retail continues to evolve but the conversation now needs to be more about town centres than shopping centres. This outlook provides local councils with a clear opportunity. Change must come if urban centres are to survive and thrive. The real questions are around scale, scope and ambition.

How can councils make positive improvements to their towns while simultaneously reaping the benefits of regeneration and high-street revival, or just plan a route for survival that will allow them to fund other important services?

Business improvement districts (BIDs) are a well-established way to raise money, but the problem is much greater than a BID can resolve and control.

The quality of public realm is also important. High streets should be more accessible, for instance, rethinking parking provision and costs or making wayfinding easier. Encouraging a greater mix of uses is vital and something that, by exerting planning and compulsory purchase order powers, councils can influence.

Encouraging variety

The issue is greater than attracting more A3 space, though. As the town centre ‘experience’ grows in importance, it’s the wider mix that is setting successful towns apart. Towns need to adapt quickly to secure alternative uses such as residential, civic buildings and offices. How a town is branded and differentiated from its competition matters more than ever.

Infrastructure is vital — the issue of cars and parking is often top of the list but what about electric charging points, rail links and future-proofing to quickly accommodate new innovation? Digital infrastructure, too, must be factored in. And so councils must also think big.

Reviewing how land can be put to better use is also essential. Infill developments can boost housing numbers and footfall without greenfield land being released.

Viability is routinely challenging, so there are opportunities for councils to intervene in bolder, more strategic ways. One current approach is buying up retail assets such as shopping centres. Such investments, handled intelligently, can make it easier both to shape wider town centre strategies and to provide an income stream to cross-subsidise public services.

Whitefriars shopping centre

Canterbury City Council bought a 50% stake in the Whitefriars shopping centre in 2016

Given that investors are currently divesting themselves of assets in this sector, there could be opportunities here. The market has been quick to criticise these interventions but, by taking a town-wide view and starting to create stronger partnerships between owners, retailers and the community, momentum – a much-needed commodity in successful regeneration – will drive results and offer a catalyst for more change.

There is an urgent need to act. The first steps are a smart strategy and a well-advised local authority that is willing and able to roll up its sleeves and get stuck in, working with partners who share the same vision for town centre revival in a post-Amazon era.  

Alan Harris is partner and head of development at Montagu Evans