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Flexibility - key to the future high street?

Deptford Market Yard in 2018: conversion of Victorian carriage ramp arches to independent retail uses, and creation of market space adjacent to High Street with new residential above (U+i PLC and Lewisham Council)

Ahead of the UK government's announcements in the coming days on the easing of lock down restrictions, we ran a second online panel discussion on what this will mean for the future of the High Street. Mike Mills, Director at planning consultancy Firstplan, Tim Partington, Board Director at architects Chapman Taylor and Bill Addy, Chair of the Business Improvement Districts (BID) Association all took part.

How many shops will be allowed to open and will there still be strict social distancing measures in place on our high streets? With the high street under pressure before the crisis, how flexible does the high street have to be in terms of range of shops and restaurants? What is the role of office developments around retail and how will social distancing affect the growth of culture in the future high street?

Rigidity around planning classes, potentially preventing innovation flourishing on the high street, was a core theme in our discussions. Mike commented:

'There are new formats around food markets and restaurants coming up and these can be difficult to fit in with traditional property use classes. At Firstplan we act for a number of these operators and the question is whether the model fits in with A1, and the local authority may argue that it does not. This has led to a lot of challenges. What we find is that the 'Uses Classes Order' has a lot of catching up to do if it is to embrace new and innovative models coming to the high street. Are they shops, restaurants, or are they bars or sandwich shops? They may have elements of each and the easy way out is for the local authority to refuse permission.

'One of the successful new models is the Market Food Hall. As the 'Market Hall' brand, it has been popular in the old BHS department store on Oxford Street, and at Fulham Broadway in a disused Edwardian station ticket hall. These models could be the future of the high street, so if there was a bit more flexibility around 'Uses Classes', then many more food operators could fill premises in high streets around the UK.

Mike continued:

'As part of a consultation last year, the Government mooted the possibility of merging all the A use classes into one single use class. Whilst it could be controversial in some quarters, such a move would bring about greater flexibility within high streets to move between different uses to reflect market demand and to better capture current and emerging new food-focused concepts. Consideration should also be given to quasi retail uses such as beauty treatment centres, nail bars where sales occur on sites and also showroom and ‘click and collect’ where the transaction may not necessarily occur on site but clearly attract visiting members of the public.

'If these changes do not happen, local planning authorities will need to be more realistic when formulating planning policies to protect A1 uses and/or specifying minimum percentage number of units or street frontage within town centres to be preserved for A1 use.

'I think determining the right policy for each individual high street will need to be tailored to a detailed understanding of local market conditions. This should take the form of an up to date evidence base report undertaken in consultation with key stakeholders to inform the preparation of planning policies to guide the appropriate land uses and build in flexibility to allow the centre to adapt and respond to meet market requirements.'

Chair of the BID Association, Bill Addy spoke of the market in Altrincham, Cheshire which has three components: a Market House (dating back to 1879) now re-launched with six kitchens, a covered market with over 60 stalls and a 'new Market Square' for young talent all devoted to food and eating. Recently it won an Observer food award:

'There have been a lot of moves to create food courts across the UK. Nick Johnson has helped transform the fortunes of Altrincham in Cheshire with the successful Altrincham Market. That model of a centralised food market with a high quality offer we can see operating across Europe. The C-Virus will accelerate the need for these, with retail under pressure, as councils search for ways to bring people and businesses back to the town and city centre.'

'The Highways Act has been the enemy of expanding restaurant and cafe tables outside', Bill continued:

'It has been difficult to emulate our European neighbours who have far more seating on street and square for diners and coffee-seekers. However, the C-Virus may well prompt changes as restaurant owners and operators look to increase their covers outside, as social distancing reduces guest numbers inside.'

Bill Addy lives in Liverpool and is also the Chief Executive of the city BID Company. He described measures which may help the city, which has become internationally known for its culture and festivals. This might involve 'art on the streets' where people can be involved in walking and viewing, but with proper social distancing measures:

'Culture, entertainment and sport have always been important to Liverpool and the visitor economy has grown since 2003, being worth £4.9 billion and supporting 57,000 jobs within the city region. The benefits from this strong visitor economy flows into the high street. We had 2,000 hotel beds in the city in the late 90's but this is rising to 9,000 beds. When football games are on or political and medical conferences are taking place, the city is full. The Terracotta Warriors exhibition at the World Museum in 2018 was a terrific success. However we are now looking at introducing more street art and sculpture, which will allow people to visit the city centre safely and socially-distanced.'

Our Future Cities Forum in Liverpool last year testified to the importance of growing the city's cultural offer, not only post Covid-19 but long term.

Helen Legg, Director of Tate Liverpool said: 'It's critical that we allocate space to culture for the long term. Development can squeeze artists out of cities, as it has done, partly, in Bristol.'

Director of Culture Liverpool, Claire McColgan added: 'In Liverpool, the city has gone on a huge journey, before 2008 confidence was low. Winning the Bid brought the city together. We engaged communities from the start. It gave the city confidence - Capital of Culture was a real moment, but these awards are not prizes but scholarships, Liverpool has huge ambition but the challenge for UK cities is creating a united front to the world...with the cruise liners coming in people talk about Liverpool differently now, and we attract all sorts of people, students, businesses and tourists.'

Tim Partington, Board Director at architects Chapman Taylor commented on the historic culture of towns and cities and how both preservation and innovative change of use has been so important in sustaining culture and identity for individual high streets:

'One of the lessons we can take from the last 30 years on the High Street is that single use is not the answer. It's interesting to look at some of the heritage buildings in city centres, that have stood the test of time, and see how well they have adapted to changes in use quite successfully alongside modern developments. This is an important part of retaining a place's character.'

He also noted importantly how the 'hollowing out of city and town centres' has created a need to prioritise a mixed-use approach:

'When looking at town centre regeneration you have to recognise that the high street has relied on retail as a single use for the last 30 to 40 years, so now many town centres are hollowed out as the traditional activities of social meeting and wider business trading have gone.

'These have moved out as a result of the dominance and convenience of the car in the 60's, 70's and 80's - to out of town cinema and leisure complexes, business and retail parks, and before that cattle and livestock markets relocating, leaving town centres with retail only.

'This sector is going through major structural changes, which Covid-19 is accelerating. There is too much retail in many places and you cannot rely on single use. You need to get a blend of activities and occupiers, where people can work, live, shop, socialise and be entertained. The crisis has focused people on their local high street.'

Future Cities Forum will be releasing its report on the future of the high street shortly.

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