Each high street and town centre across the UK has its own identity – a fusion of history, geography, culture and local character. This unique DNA can shape an area’s potential, so there is no simple equation to create a successful space.
Instead, we must evaluate a location’s uniqueness to develop a destination that works for local people.
High streets can no longer survive on retail alone. While places where people can access practical services – such as civic buildings, health services and shops – are essential, they also need elements that bring wider benefits to the community, as well as opportunities for socialising, recreation and wellbeing – for example, open spaces, cinemas, sports centres, cafés, restaurants and community centres.
There are many ways to breathe new life into town centres and high streets. Art, civic and cultural anchors such as theatres, libraries and museums, alongside a programme of curated events, can attract wider audiences and engage local people. The inclusion of offices and skills-based businesses will also draw new people to the high street.
Reimagining high streets and town centres and ensuring their long-term sustainability requires strong leadership and commitment from local authorities. They need to be active authors and curators of a vision and gain support from the wider community. Permitted development rights (PDR) hamper strategic planning. Local authorities must be given greater powers to suspend PDR, take control and produce their own overarching masterplans for town centres.
Flexibility within the planning use and designation classes could also help high streets and town centres evolve and offer a wider range of activities and services to better serve the needs of their customers.
Without this flexibility, people will continue to shop online or at out-of-town locations. The more that buildings can be used for different purposes, the more opportunities are created to offer a variety of services and increase levels of activity.
If individual masterplans grow from an understanding of local heritage and culture and create visions for the future that reflect the needs of local people, then I believe high streets and town centres can not only survive but flourish.
Lee Davies is partner at Conran and Partners