Saving the Town Centre

High Street

20 Apr 2018

Policy area: Town centre & Retail

Policy Officer Raja Hanna explains why the health of UK town centres should be higher up on the national agenda, and how good planning policy can improve prospects. 

Newly released research from the Town Centre Monitor sheds light on the value of town centres on Britain’s economy. The report provides evidence to suggest that the health of our town centres should be higher up on the national agenda.

In 2015, town centres generated £589bn in GVA (Gross Value Added) for the economies of England and Wales; and when looking at the UK’s four key economic indicators (firms, employment, turnover and GVA), town centres play one of the biggest roles in supporting growth, generating 35% of total GVA.

According to this report, town centres are also known to support enhanced employee productivity: productivity in town centres is £65,000 per employee, and this increases to £91,000 per employee in London – which is 80% higher than the national average, which includes out-of-town and industrial sites.

Moreover, town centres encourage high density employment clusters that are easily accessible by public transport and therefore create greater opportunities for business specialisation, knowledge spill-over, increased efficiency, access to larger labour markets and economies of scale. Research undertaken for the BPF by economics and planning consultancy Colin Buchanan has shown that this was found to make people significantly more productive, compared to when the same jobs are spread further apart. This research suggests that relocating 80,000 jobs to accessible high-density locations would increase output by £206 million annually.

We therefore want to ensure that town centres do not become blighted by the current macro-economic environment. Empty spaces on our high streets correlate with low economic prosperity. Research has revealed that 102 BHS stores remain empty nearly two years after the high street chain collapsed, and only 29% of the 164 stores which were closed have been re-let or sold. However, while some high streets have struggled to evolve to keep up with retail’s structural changes, including the rise of e-commerce and fast-changing consumer behaviours, there are a plethora of successful retail stories to learn from. Marylebone High Street is one such example, having ensured it encompasses a range of bars, gyms and restaurants, satisfying the consumer’s need for an experiential destination. It has been quoted as "the hidden wonder of the West End" and been voted the best street in London by listeners of BBC Radio 4, winning an accolade for being "a haven in the middle of the frantic city"

The future need not be so bleak for high-streets and town centres, as fuelled by the media spotlight. To improve prospects, we must ensure that policy adapts to how successful high streets are being used and meet modern demands - encouragingly, government seem to agree! The newly released National Planning Policy Framework suggests that local planning authorities should take a positive approach to applications for new homes in under-utilised retail and employment land. The Draft New London Plan encourages residential development in the form of smaller households, Build to Rent and student accommodation, to adapt to the new dynamic of high streets. High Street Minister Jake Berry has also been proactive, announcing that he wants the Future High Streets Forum to look at three aspects specifically: Leadership on the high street, Experiential Retail and Planning/Digital. Meetings on these will completed by June, before a Call for Evidence is released in the Autumn. The BPF will feed into all of this.

What is most encouraging, is that all these political initiates are promoting engagement and strategic collaboration between Local Authorities and Central Government. Central policy-makers are devolving local decisions to those with local knowledge, and local authorities are being stimulated to think innovatively to solve key national key issues.

These political proposals are encouraging, they look to alleviate two problems – empty spaces on our high streets and the demand for housing in urban areas. Also, government do not have to worry about building the essential infrastructure to support new housing here, as town centres are already highly accessibility. The intervention by Jake Berry MP is also welcome –  this demonstrates appetite from the higher echelons of government to address the disintegration of retail on the high street by encouraging innovation and adaption in planning our town centre. Pragmatic policy-making at its finest.