Future healthy high streets - who's in charge?


St Pancras Church by Exeter's Queen Street Dining Project, surrounded by new public realm - part of a regeneration of the Guildhall shopping centre begun in 2014 by Aviva Investors

The troubled British high street is now facing further challenges in the aftermath of the Coronavirus outbreak, with shoppers fearful of catching infections while struggling with social distancing measures.

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government has just announced (May 1st 2020) a £6.1 million funding boost to help high streets and town centres through the pandemic. The money will be paid to local authorities and dispersed to Business Improvement Districts.

Simon Quin, Executive Director of the High Streets Task Force said:

'BIDs have established networks and capacity in their local areas which provide vital coordination and help, both for businesses getting back on their feet and for communities that will need guidance and reassurance to return to the high street, when it is safe to do so. By accessing the support, BIDs can ensure they continue to make a real difference to the recovery of our town and city centres'.

So what will our streets look like over the next weeks and months? Will they remain deserted or buzzing with renewed enthusiasm to get out, meet friends, buy summer clothes and grab a coffee? What of the long-term investment in our high streets and town centres? Will London and the South still enjoy investment and leave the North without sufficient development funds? Will the visitor economy still play a part, influencing survival?

These were questions that we tackled this week in our online discussion with Robin Shepherd, Partner at planning firm Barton Willmore, Chris Urwin, Head of Research for Real Assets at Aviva Investors and Trevor Morriss, Principal of architecture practice, SPPARC.

Future Cities Forum began our debates around the future of the high street in 2018, when we invited Rachel Fisher, Deputy Director for Regeneration at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to our discussion forum in White City. Rachel was keen to point out that the solution to the the 'dying' UK high street, lies mainly with strong local leadership. Research she said has shown that there will need to be different approaches for high streets around the country and that the Metro and combined authority mayors are motivated in finding regional and local solutions.

She was joined on our discussion panel by GLA's Debbie Jackson, who stated that the high street's survival has been supported by government, with pockets of money taken from larger social and community funds (£100 million), and that there was a strong social and civic case for doing so.

Then In July last year the £3.6 billion Towns Fund was announced, including the £1 billion High Streets Fund to help streets adapt and evolve while remaining vibrant places for their community. A new 'High Streets Task Force' was also announced by the government in response to advice from a panel chaired by Sir John Timpson. The aim of the task force is to give access to cutting-edge research, new online training and local footfall data for businesses.

Current town centre and high street regeneration receiving public attention includes developers' plans for Gravesend in northwest Kent, a Thames Gateway commuter town with Roman origins and the oldest surviving market in the country with a charter dating back to 1268. The plans include 242 new homes and the regeneration of the historic area of the town, bringing commercial and leisure development to the rear of St George's shopping centre. The idea for the regeneration of the town was proposed more than 15 years ago but plans on the £160 million project repeatedly stalled until it was bought by Reef which then began work on the shopping centre.

Ilford High Street is another important regeneration programme being carried out by Redbridge Council. Head of Regeneration, Sharon Strutt, who recently led production of the borough's 15 year Regeneration Strategy, told us at our September forum last year about her plans:

'Public realm interventions are at the heart of what we are doing in Ilford to help kick start the catalyst for regeneration. We are fortunate to have a Crossrail station so there is a great connection between rail infrastructure and neighbourhood improvements. We have invested in the public realm and we are moving away from a traditional model of people just coming in to shop then out again, towards making a much more liveable town centre. It must have performance spaces, and we have brought in a new market operator who can help make a more flexible set of shopping and social experiences. We are laying the groundwork for a cultural place.

'Ilford does not feel beautiful at the moment, as there is the problem of rough sleeping and anti-social behaviour, which detracts from the economic life blood, as people do not dwell in the centre. We do have open and accessible space but it doesn't work hard enough. Curating the space to attract people to spend time in the centre is crucial. It can't be a place that shuts at 6 pm.'

Barton Willmore's Robin Shepherd has been writing about the impact of the virus and how he feels that we now sadly view our streets and parks as areas of 'risk, not the pride of cities'. It's important to remember he says that in the early 1900's scientists and medical advisers saw the spread of disease as a public health crisis in cities, exacerbated by overcrowding. The health authorities saw the solution to this as dispersal.'

Decades later, people were moved out of housing estates to 'greener pastures' in suburbia, unfortunately leading to communities dependent on the car and suffering the effects of exhaust fumes and pollution.

Current research from the UK government and separately from the University of Cambridge suggests that the Coronavirus has the biggest impact in areas of city deprivation and that the worst effects of the disease is connected to areas of high pollution. So who should have the final say in how our cities, towns and high streets develop? Robin thinks it is important not 'to hand over the agenda' entirely to the health authorities.

'We all need to understand how places can be created to be healthy' writes Robin 'but that is not merely consulting the health sector on a planning application or driving formalised health standards...a health driven agenda although desirable, could undermine our abilities to respond to climate change or social isolation.'

'Wouldn't it be a shame if social distancing is the only measure for designing streets? We can't have single issue planning as the order of the day. The scientists are doing a fantastic job but health authorities cannot be in charge of designing cities.'

Aviva Investors' Chris Urwin drew an interesting parallel in our discussion with the design of the Basque city of Bilbao:

'One interesting thing not touched on often when talking about Bilbao - the poster child for industrial city regeneration - was the insistence of the city leaders on density, and this has helped get the right transport infrastructure in place, while avoiding the sprawl of new suburbs and keeping people together which ultimately makes a vibrant city.'

SPPARC's Trevor Morriss commented:

'People have quite short memories...I am a firm believer in that innovation is the only way you make progress. For a time we thought terrorism measures would influence the way we design streets. One thing that is certain is that this C-Virus will not be forever. People really miss social interaction so out of this will come real opportunities. Socially we are in very different world from the 1400's because of health and hygiene, so regenerating the medieval street pattern in Southwark, for instance, is not a problem. However, this is not the case everywhere in the world.'

Trevor's studio has been working to bring back the historic names of medieval lanes including Dirty Lane, Clink Yard and Soap Yard, in a £300 million mixed-use development in Southwark with completion in 2020. The project design re-invents the historic medieval street pattern, near Tate Modern, along with the Victorian railway heritage, opening up the brick arches for new retail, cultural spaces and a gallery. It allows for visitors to engage with the history while providing new life to the area, fresh interest and high quality public realm. (see illustration below)

Trevor continued:

'Public realm is now properly understood among planners, developers, architects and councils. This has come about through making mistakes. Before it was a tick box approach but now people understand the benefits. One issue, though is the slowness of legislation and the time it takes to reflect actual changes in how we live. If we go back a few years the pressing issue for urban planners was anti-terrorism measures. Are we now in a snowball where one overriding issue is placed on top of another?'

'There are still world cities which have overcrowding problems and these of course must be resolved but this is not just driven by the pandemic.The re-calibration of values has been brought on by social-distancing and social media. What it proves is that we really miss physical interactions. The crisis recovery will give architects and planners a massive opportunity to reinvigorate high streets.'

On the important issue of the economic well-being of the high street, the late Adrian Lee, Development Director at LCR Property, who was overseeing the current Waterloo.London project when he joined our September 2019 forum, pointed out that:

'It's noteworthy that transport retail is out-performing the high street. One explanation is that business rates are too high on the high street. If (retail) trade is done in a big shed in Loughborough then that is where the tax should be. We are running three year leases now, but we believe in a partnership model rather than a landlord-tenant one. This is easier to do across a single ownership project than on a high street which is more fragmented. We are also re-working the Leake Street Arches where we are promoting independent brands and retailers'.

Nine months on and with the economic impact of the C-virus about to make itself felt on the high street, Chris Urwin warned:

'With many high streets in trouble before the pandemic broke in Europe, this crisis is likely to accelerate changes that were playing out anyway. Like many other cyclical downturns this one will accelerate change. Some of the retailers now may reduce footprint more quickly. I don't think we are looking at a completely different future but we might get to that future more quickly. There will be major differentials between high streets and between the UK and Europe. Investors will be attracted to the best locations, and these may well be established tourist destinations with high employment.

'The stronger locations will also be those where lots of people go to work, without a specific shopping mission around retail stores. Those who will succeed will be retailers who provide engagement which is enjoyable and which combines well with a leisure experience. Those that thrive will promote engagement with the brand in a physical space so the focus won't just be on traditional transactions.'

Last summer, Future Cities Forum interviewed Dan Feist, Development Director of Essex Cricket, who said that sport may have a bigger role on the High Street. He described a company called BatFast which puts 'virtual' cricket nets into vacant shops, allowing visitors of all age groups to bat against bowling machines which are backed with videos of famous test match bowlers.

Trevor commented on how important it is for the future high street to develop a mix of uses, and this was true not just of local shopping centres but also the famous retail destinations such as Oxford Street. He said there is also a crisis around how the empty elements above shops will be used.

With this in mind, the government has been calling for views on whether an online register of commercial properties would make it easier to bring empty shops back into use - with a view to make ownership of high street properties more transparent, making it easier for businesses and community groups to find space and support investment in local areas.

Historic England has spoken about the economic threat to our high streets, perhaps leading to empty shops, but also the part our individual and historic high streets have in telling their stories. It has talked of 'the special character of our historic high streets' which is 'suffering, threatening the prosperity of our villages, towns and cities and eroding their sense of local identity and place.

Last September £95 million was promised by the government to deliver physical improvements and cultural activities through Historic England working with local councils. The initiative is part funded with £40 million from the Department for Digital, Culture Media and Sport's Heritage High Street Fund, to support a cultural programme to engage people in the life and history of their high streets.

Trevor knows well the importance of preserving the historic character of buildings but also intelligently re-purposing them for modern day interest:

'At Olympia we are creating a new elevated high street but.it won't be enough just to have coffee so we are putting in as much innovation as possible, so there are plenty of reasons to go there.'

Deutsche Finance and Yoo Capital's design team - including SPPARC - is re-inventing the Victorian and Edwardian era's 'people's palace' for the next century, with a focus on new entertainment venues, hotels, retail and restaurants to complement the existing exhibition halls.

SPPARC's Olympia Project Architect, Lucy Holmes explained at our April 2019 forum on cultural regeneration:

'The roads around the site are congested by service traffic, so we are going to locate a service and delivery hub below ground and free up space for visitors on foot. We will create a new public realm 'sky walk' level with roof top gardens, retail and restaurants. A 1500 seat theatre, and a 1,000 seat performing arts venue as well as two hotels - from citizenM and Hyatt - will be added. There is also an outline application for affordable office space and retail on Olympia Way so the public realm is properly activated.'

While discussing the use of historic assets in inspiring new ways, Future Cities Forum has also debated and written about the idea of creating 'culture' where none existed. This is particularly poignant to the emergence of a new cultural hub at Stratford in East London, with the V&A siting a new museum next to a new base for the London College of Fashion and a second Sadler's Wells building for dance which will contain a Hip-Hop academy.

Chris commented:

'It's a tough ask for local authorities to create culture from scratch but it has to be authentic. You can't just tick boxes and say let's put in a theatre and art gallery and we will solve the cultural component.'

Robin disagreed:

'It's not a lost cause if a place does not have big culture to draw on. I am a great believer in the 'hose-pipe technique' as it costs nothing. Having fun does not need the big gestures. For instance Baltimore has a Zombie Festival, and Southampton's neighbour Eastleigh has a Benny Hill legacy! It's about having an identity and a vision people can get behind. Local authorities can then take control of the space - though not by owning it - and encourage the growth of leisure, tourism and entertainment.

'Let's make our cities fun places to be. In Southampton West Quay Watermark, Hammerson has invested in public realm with the features providing a simple light and water show on the old city wall. With seating in place it is where people gather. The value of place is not just financial, it is about bringing people together.

'Europe is far ahead of the UK on housing in city centres. What is attractive for families and for retirees rather than just young professionals? I would like to say take stock and ask what we want out of our cities? Places for fun are needed, and free fun is better. Put this in and then people will spend money on coffee, wine and whatever.'

'Exeter's Queen Street Dining Project by the Guildhall shopping centre' Chris said 'succeeded because we could curate the whole area.The key here was observing consumer behaviour change, which was about spending on restaurants and bars and meeting up.'

Future Cities Forum interviewed the Chief Executive of Exeter City Council back in 2017, when he was concerned about the falling interest from visitors to the high street. The Queen Street regeneration scheme followed shortly after and makes use of one of the city's many medieval churches, around which Aviva has planned an amphitheatre style collection of steps for outdoor seating and performances (pictured above) The grand Victorian Greek Revival pillars that guard the entrance to the scheme also allow city visitors to follow through to the quirky shops of Gandy Street and the nearby Royal Albert Museum.

One important mission that the UK government has stated is a 'levelling up of towns and regions, ensuring prosperity and opportunity is available to everyone.' Minister for the Northern Powerhouse Rt Hon Jake Berry says:

'Every place has its own unique strengths and challenges but all our town centres and high streets have one thing in common - they are the lifeblood of communities. This people's government is backing people across the Northern Powerhouse and every part of the UK to succeed no matter where they live'.

Chris commented on this during our debate and the 'unequal parts of the UK' and where investment is likely to be placed post Covid-19:

'I don't think the North-South divide is as stark as some suggest. Manchester stands out as somewhere retailers will keep their footprint in place as there is expanding employment and spending power as well as a growing population. It has strong 'destination' qualities. As a landlord you must ask whether your space has the qualities that will attract occupiers and visitors? Lower quality retail parks will suffer.

'Scale does make a difference, and if people make fewer shopping trips in future then scale is a distinct help. The retail destinations which will benefit the most from the infrastructure delivery of Crossrail are Bond Street and Tottenham Court Road. Places like Ilford will benefit but this is about increasing the attractions of doing business there, as driving employment is key to supporting the high street.'

Concluding our Future Cities Forum discussion, Chris looked ahead to investment opportunities, comparing the UK with Europe:

'When deciding where to invest we look at spending growth, size of catchment, the skills profile of local labour force favouring high value economic activity and then go beyond that to destination issues like tourist numbers and hotel spaces. Stronger performers in Europe will be the cities which have tourist attractions like Dusseldorf and Copenhagen. It's worth saying that Northern Europe has does a good job of protecting its high streets and centres through better land use controls than those in place in the UK.'

Future Cities Forum will be following up on this discussion with more online events.

CGI of mixed-use regeneration around old Vinopolis site in Southwark, London (SPPARC)

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