Anthropy Conference

Reshaping generation – thinking ‘more than stores’ for UK high streets .

As UK towns and high streets continue to decline amid economic challenges and poor attempts at regeneration, it’s time to consider what can be done to reverse their fortunes.

Alex Smith, managing director of infrastructure and specialist markets at Shakespeare Martineau, who is attending Anthropy 23, discusses the firm’s joint research report with planning, design and development consultancy Marrons. The research report, More Than Stores, looks into Britain’s town centres, explores why we need to reshape the way we think about regeneration and, most importantly, how we go about it.

The speeding decline of our urban centres is a well-documented issue that’s been in the headlines since long before the pandemic. It’s being expedited further as UK consumers continue to shift to online retail and, in many ways, the time of the high street store is looking to be nearly up.

Compared to pre-pandemic levels, footfall to high streets, retail parks and shopping centres in 2023 has decreased by nearly 10%. While factors such as the ongoing cost of living crisis will undoubtably have had an effect, retail habits have been changing for some time and now the effects are becoming increasingly evident.

Although many local authorities have tried to remedy this issue for years, quick fixes, such as local councils encouraging new businesses to take the place of old ones, are clearly not working.

Simply opening new retail spaces to replace failed ones will not solve the problem entirely. The way Britain shops has changed forever, so it’s time to think differently about how we can revive the high street. As a hint, the answer isn’t simply more shops.

A fresh perspective

Despite support of the high street being a key part of the government’s ‘Build Back Better’ plan, it continues to focus on the town centres of the past where retail ruled. The Levelling Up Fund, a flagship government policy strand, has also received criticism around how and where it would be delivered, resulting in directionless ideas and a lack of impetus for lasting and meaningful change.

Following a lack of consistent support and strategy from the government, our recent research suggests a re-examination of urban models, thinking ‘more than stores’ for an alternative future for high streets and town centres.

Part of the problem comes down to planning. Local authority planning departments must move away from their retail-or-nothing mindsets and move to embrace diversity, in terms of looks, use class and tenure type. Part of this could be nurturing the history and culture of town centres, which will in turn make them more attractive to inward investors.

There’s no easy solution to the problem of regenerating of the high street. However, considering meaningful and thoughtful changes that reflect each individual area increases the likelihood of successful inward investment, in turn leading to local economic growth, infrastructure development and community development.

More Than Stores is suggesting it’s time to stop thinking one-dimensionally, and instead consider all aspects of life in order to boost footfall, which includes, but isn’t limited to housing – especially later living – flexible office spaces, logistics, healthcare, education, meanwhile spaces – reducing vacancies with temporary occupation for community events – and spaces that better embrace architectural and cultural heritage.

Collaborative regeneration

There’s more to town centre regeneration than the high street, which is why Shakespeare Martineau’s research developed The Regeneration Index, which analyses affordability and accessibility of housing, employment-to-resident ratios and population growth to determine which towns are resilient and can grow with minimal government intervention, and which are in urgent need of funding.

The Regeneration Index examines town-level investment in a way that’s only previously been done for regions or cities. Previously, research has assumed that funding is limitless, rather than considering the disparities between towns that this index reveals.

More Than Stores also highlights the importance of reactivating vacant space in towns – such as brownfield land and derelict spaces. Currently, the options for local governments are limited, and it’s time to open up the possibilities for development, such as offsetting development costs and complications to incentivise development from private companies.

This research illustrates the benefits of public-private collaboration, identifying key areas of growth where businesses can support governments to clear the hurdle of funding in the regeneration of the high street. This collaborative approach supports a renewal of community space that is beyond the current capabilities of local governments.

For this level of comprehensive regeneration, More Than Stores demonstrates the need for legislative change to support holistic strategy between the public and private sector, ensuring certainty and viable development.

However, development isn’t without its risk from the changing climate, such as extreme weather events that will disrupt the economy even further, which is why master planning must include sustainable fixes. Despite short-term costs, private investment offers an opportunity to make a real difference, not just for current communities, but for those of the future.

As the government falls further and further behind in successfully regenerating town centres, there’s a real opportunity for businesses to play their part in supporting the revival. Indeed, if businesses want their local urban centres to continue being places where people like working, where people want to work and to remain pleasant places to be, they must play their part.

More than Stores has highlighted how the outdated strategy to regenerate the high street isn’t working, and showed how it is time for businesses to think laterally, working with the government, to create new town centres that reflect how we’ve changed as a society.

To find out more about how thinking ‘More Than Stores’ could help our high streets, read the report here.