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Local leadership is key to reinventing town centres

Words: Laura Edgar
Empty shops on high streets / iStock-500377555

A community-focused approach is required to tackle the challenges facing high streets and town centres, according to a report published today (20 December).

It urges local communities to create a community hub where leisure and social services sit alongside retail and residential property.

A panel was appointed in July this year by high streets minister Jake Berry to investigate the issues affecting high streets and town centres, and then recommend measures to address them.

Chaired by Sir John Timpson, chair of the Timpson shoe repair chain, the panel suggests that an ‘Upside Down Government’ approach would empower local leaders to implement their plans to reinvent town centres. They would be supported by a Town Centres Task Force and funding from the government’s Future High Streets Fund, both of which were announced in the 2018 Budget.

The panel also wants to see communities celebrate town centres with a National High Street Perfect Day to tackle litter and graffiti so that people can take pride in their local shopping centres.

The report says planning provides key tools to enable communities to shape and deliver their high streets agenda, which when used wisely could bring great benefit. The task force should "encourage action that can make planning decisions simpler, quicker and more aligned to local strategies".

The panel recommends that the task force should play a role in boosting local authority capacity so that planning can support local areas and stakeholders to design effective and innovative high street and town centre strategies.

The report refers to town centres rather than high streets, Timpson writes in his introduction, because its recommendations are not solely about shops and shopping.

"The town centre of the future should attract local people to take part in a variety of activities – including dining, leisure and sport, culture and the arts, entertainment, medical services, and many more uses. They should also contain business premises, offices, and residential including affordable housing. We have more shops than we need and are short of housing in many parts of the country. It seems to us obvious that part of the retail estate should be converted into residential property where there is housing shortage."

The High Street Report also includes some short-term recommendations.

  • Local authorities should use their initiative to encourage landlords and tenants to think innovatively about how to use empty properties.
  • Places should ensure that their parking restrictions and charges are not driving people out of town centres.

Timpson said that then the panel began its work it knew the high streets would never be the same again but members were pleased to discover places where “imaginative developments have increased footfall and reduced the number of empty shops”.

“I have learnt from my own business that the best way to get things done is to give people on the front line the freedom to get on with the job in the way they know best. We are applying the same Upside Down Government principle to the development of our town centres, with our Town Centre Task Force there to mentor, encourage and clear any obstacles out of the way while giving the clear message to inspirational local leaders that they are free to turn their plans into reality."

The report can be found here on the UK Government website (pdf).

Image credit | iStock