Future High Streets report 2023
From left to right: Debbie Jackson of Westminster City Council (just out of picture), Ellie Evans of Volterra, Harrie Notton of We Are Waterloo BID, Fred Pilbrow of Pilbrow & Partners, Garry Wilding of BDP, Georgia Collard-Watson of Grimshaw, Colin Hockley of Sheppard Robson, Sharon Strutt of Redbridge Council, and (out of picture) Stuart Harris of Milligan, and Owain Lloyd- James of Historic England - with Heather Fearfield of Future Cities Forum at head of table. Cllr Richard Cook of Gloucester City Council is on screen - and Fay Cannings of Waltham Forest Council also contributed.
Future Cities Forum opened its recent 'Future High Streets' discussions in London with questions on how to improve the fortunes of badly performing retail outlets across the UK's shopping destinations and town centres.
Many shopping streets in cities and towns are still struggling with online competition and the effects of the pandemic. However, he UK government has recently announced a list of fifty-five towns that are to benefit from extra funding and this money will go towards supporting high streets too.
The UK government states:
'The government has taken a series of actions in recent years to support towns, but we also recognise that there is more to be done. We need a new plan for towns to level up and deliver growth, as part of our wider ambitions to change the economic geography of the UK....This prospectus sets out a new plan to put local people at the centre of their town’s success and give them the long-term funding to change its future. We have identified 55 towns to develop the first wave of Town Partnerships, backed by £1.1 billion overall, to drive ambitious plans to regenerate local towns across the UK over the next decade. Each town will:
develop a Long-Term Plan to invest in and regenerate their town, based on the priorities of local people, and put to local people for consultation
receive up to £20 million in endowment-style funding and support over 10 years to support this Plan, to be spent on issues that matter to local people, including regenerating high streets and securing public safety. This plan will be put to local people.
establish a Town Board to bring together community leaders, employers, local authorities and the local MP to oversee and deliver the Long-Term Plan
use a toolkit of powers, from tackling anti-social behaviour to auctioning empty high street shops, reforming licensing rules on shops and restaurants and supporting more housing in town centres
'To ensure towns achieve their potential, we are establishing a Towns Taskforce, reporting directly to the Prime Minister and Levelling Up Secretary. Working with the Levelling Up Inter-Ministerial Group, the Taskforce will help Town Boards to develop their Plans, and advise them on how best to take advantage of government policies, unlock private and philanthropic investment and engage their communities.'
Historic England was invited by Future Cities Forum to discuss the importance of restoring historic shop frontages in towns as well as curating cultural programmes for communities and visitors. Sheppard Robson described the important trend of siting new health services in redundant department stores, developer Milligan spoke on the re-introduction of affordable homes in town centres and economics consultancy Volterra commented on the provision for micro-mobility hubs next to shopping streets to encourage active travel.
Westminster City Council, Pilbrow & Partners, We are Waterloo BID, Grimshaw, Historic England, Redbridge Council, Waltham Forest Council, Gloucester City Council, Milligan, Sheppard Robson, BDP and Volterra were the contributors who took part in our debate.
To begin the discussion, there were opening comments by Westminster City Council on how to address the problem of empty and underused shops, with a current programme of giving innovative companies space, to attract customers.
Debbie Jackson joined Westminster Council as the Executive Director of Regeneration, Economy and Planning in July 2020. She has responsibility for a wide range of services including Economy and Skills, Town Planning, Regeneration and Development and Place Shaping. All with a central mission to serve Westminster’s communities and make it the best place to live, work and visit.
Westminster City Council has released news that small businesses are being offered the chance to take over a shop on Oxford Street, rent-free, as part of a new project launched this summer.
Called “Meanwhile On: Oxford Street”, the programme invited applications from innovative, cutting-edge and up-and-coming brands who will offer something exciting and new to one of the world's most iconic shopping streets.
The businesses selected can use this high-profile space to bring their brand’s story to life, for example through new technologies such as virtual or augmented reality, interactive exhibitions and in some cases, by bringing the production process to the customer by installing machines in store, opening visitor’s eyes to how clothes and other materials are made.
Meanwhile On: Oxford Street aims to activate empty and underused spaces, targeting those previously taken up by low quality occupiers such as American candy stores. The programme forms part of Westminster City Council’s wider Fairer Economy plan to invest in high streets throughout the borough, with plans to expand Meanwhile On to other areas.
The campaign is aimed at businesses looking to launch their first store or physical space. Selected brands will be given a prime store location for an initial six-month period. These opportunities will be 100% rent-free for brands, with a minimum reduction of business rates of 70%. Stores will either be available for single occupancy or as a themed concept store shared between multiple brands.
Additionally, brands will benefit from store design, mentoring, management and marketing support from independent retail consultants, Someday Studios, and Westminster City Council. This represents an exciting package of support for small businesses seeking the opportunity to trade in London’s West End for the first time.
Debbie Jackson, said:
‘On Oxford Street the project is to prevent empty premises through a match between creative talent who would love to have place on the nation's high street and prevent low value retail like candy and luggage stores. We now have the 'nice problem' of over 800 applications to filter and then map to units, working with landowners. The underlying story on Oxford Street is quite good...but not in the whole of Westminster. We are unusual in that property ownership on the high street is held by a few big landowners which is a rare treat...otherwise it can be very difficult sometimes to find out who your owners are. We can efficient conversations with fewer of these.
'Our vision is beyond retail, though retail still has place with digital first brands coming onto the high street. However, it is now more about 'showing' rather than selling, it is experiential, We find there is a trend of diversification into art and leisure. There are loads of artists and creatives about who are making a difference to the high street. Its about making Oxford Street a really diverse experience. It is funny that as a place it has not had a night-time programme though Soho and Fitzrovia are close.
'On the greening, it is really hard to plant a tree in Oxford Street. This though is open to others to contribute via their buildings. Would love to but there is spaghetti wires under the pavements, so difficult.'
Above: CGI of Oxford Street, the 'Nation's High Street' (courtesy Westminster City Council)
The overhaul of Oxford Street has moved a step closer as Westminster City Council and the New West End Company (NWEC) have now formally signed a Memorandum of Understanding agreement to restore one of Europe’s premier shopping destinations to its former glory.
The partnership, one of the capital’s most significant public-private ventures in recent years, starts the countdown to work starting on the project next year. The Memorandum of Understanding between the Council and NWEC - which represents 600 retail, restaurant, hotel, and property owners across the West End - sets out the ambition to joint-fund the Oxford Street project.
In September, Westminster City Council’s Cabinet formally approved the business case for the Oxford Street scheme. The Oxford Street design has been progressed and the responses from the programme public consultation in the summer will be incorporated. Construction work is expected to start in 2024.
The plans cover the entire 1.8km length of Oxford Street from Marble Arch to Tottenham Court Road with key features including wider footways, greening and seating. Junctions joining the street, including at Oxford Circus, will be redesigned to create more space for pedestrians along with new and improved crossings. . Additional schemes will further enhance surrounding streets and key locations.
Image: CGI of the new M&S building on Oxford Street courtesy of Pilbrow & Partners
One of the most contested development projects on Oxford Street has been the re-modelling of the M&S store. Pilbrow & Partners' founding partner, Fred Pilbrow, joined the discussion to shed light on the task in hand:
Pilbrow's proposals deliver an ambitious mixed-use development associated with a new flagship store for M&S, with the firm saying that the project contributes to Westminster City Council’s vision for the Oxford Street district. The offices on the upper floors of the building will achieve BREEAM Outstanding and WELL Platinum accreditation. The design delivers ambitious operational energy consumption targets of 33khw/m²/GIA (regulated) and 55kwh/m²/GIA (unregulated). A1/A5 embodied carbon is calculated to be 653 C02e m² GIA. The proposals, Pilbrow says, carefully consider how the building will meet fundamental health and wellbeing needs integrating a new generation of sensor technology that draws on the practice's pioneering work for EDGE at London Bridge. The building possesses a mixed mode ventilation strategy, with each 3m office bay module being provided with a high level openable window within the facade. The proposals detail generous urban greening and net gains in biodiversity in line with the Wild West End framework and above GLA requirement levels.
Fred Pilbrow told the discussion group at Future Cities Forum:
'There are some commonalities between our projects for M&S in the King's Road and also in Oxford Street as both are about the future of retailing which has suffered through online shopping. Bricks and mortar needs to deliver a fantastic customer experience and be efficient. The day of the multi storey department store has largely gone but these buildings are very sustainable places to be creating employment. Westminster City Council discourages homes in these locations and can see that offices are better at creating spaces for employment.
'Our Oxford Street M&S proposal got support from Westminster City Council and from the Mayor of London and importantly the inspector, who said the proposal was noteworthy on retrofit. As a practice we are good at retrofit, but it depends on the building that you start with, is it robust and what is the structural capacity? On the Oxford Street M&S project we are dealing with three buildings with tight dimensions, compromised spaces and the floors are misaligned. It is not delivering the calibre of retail or workspace that it should and our idea is to extend upwards using steel. The building also needs new facades. We have done more work in the area of carbon and we know now our proposals with retrofit will be lower in carbon. I think Gove made a mistake and I hope M&S is successful in appealing the decision.'
Above: outside temporary cinema in Lambeth (Courtesy WeAreWaterloo BID)
The quality of place around retail often helps drive footfall. Harrie Notton, Head of Strategy at 'We are Waterloo' joined the discussion to describe how as an organisation, it had asked Allies and Morrison to work up a plan to improve the area post Covid, consulting with the community as well:
'There are about 150 projects to be getting on with, some are very expensive and therefore not realistic at the moment but we wanted to be incredibly proactive working with Lambeth Council and find quick ways to pedestianise the area. We have a focus on Marsh Lane, which is the site of one of our older markets and we wanted to take the cars out of there. We have managed that in the evenings to start with and it is great watching a variety of people including kids coming out to watch open-air cinema. So we know we can roll these strategies out with Lambeth. Thinking about the Waterloo masterplan, we have ideas for a walkway from Waterloo Station down to the Marsh Lane market and to the Old Vic Theatre.
'We have also signed up to the GLA incubator data programme which is very helpful because it tells us how people spend and ideas for driving footfall and possibly bring back our Saturday morning market and perhaps help it to run all day.
'It was interesting listening to earlier discussion here about how to handle vacant retail. We have schemes on Lower Marsh where some shops are vacant and we have been approaching landlords to ask them can you work with us to provide experiential uses for six months or so, to help local artists. We have an arts festival organisation that has moved in and share a heartbeat with us. So I think the future is bright for Waterloo and for our greening projects, that on our recent trip to Strasbourg to share ideas, brought a lot of interest and questions about how we have been able to provide little but important interventions.'
Image: Waterloo Station, London in May 2023 showing the absence of 'apron' and lack of easy pedestrian access
Grimshaw's Associate Director Georgia Collard-Watson who is working on the Waterloo masterplan, discussed how as a firm they were careful not to add an extra voice to the excellent work that was already taking place through 'We are Waterloo':
'We took on the Waterloo masterplan a year ago and was aware of the great work being carried out by the Bid, so beyond that wanted to try to understand the needs of stakeholders in the area and bring all that together in a coherent whole.
'Having to cross York Road and the roundabout to get to Lower Marsh, Southbank and into the City is very challenging in terms of navigation and precludes dwell time. So we have been working collaboratively with Network Rail on key points to unlock this and also to evaluate the station itself and make improvements. So for instance, there are bus routes that strangle pedestrianisation and we want people to be able to respond to the station as a civic hub and therefore the station will then be giving something back to the wider city.
'We are looking to unlock the movement southwards to St Thomas' Hospital and provide a new southern concourse for the station, bring the arches underneath back into connection with the station and make sure it is an anchor to city streets.''
Image: CGI Waterloo Station re-modelling, courtesy of Grimshaw.
Grimshaw is also working on the cultural and historic importance of the streets around Waterloo to bring them back to life. This is something that Historic England has been working on through their High Streets Action Programme or HAZ, with some positive benefits to communities across the UK.
Owain Lloyd James, Head of Place at Historic England said uncovering historic shop fronts goes a long way to encouraging people back into high streets:
'Our high streets are full of historic shop fronts that get covered up with plastic fascias and people don't know about how much history lies behind them. They are usually fantastic shop fronts but where I live in Tonbridge there is a load of rubbish in front of them. Visitors perceive places where this has happened as underwhelming and they just do not want to dwell there.
'Take Derby for instance, there was a forty per cent vacancy rate among the shops but by the time Historic England left, there was nought per cent. Projects do need place-management and the BIDS are vital in that. In Derby one property owner bought into our scheme and that made all the difference.
'Coventry is another good demonstrator example. There was a local councillor who didn't like us and it wasn't a great start but it didn't stop us because the Historic Coventry Trust took it on. We have learned lessons that it isn't always the local authority that becomes the lead partner and also that we could raise the capacity of the trust that led to attracting more funding. So it was two wins'.
Historic England's High Streets Heritage Action Zones Cultural Programme is part of the £95 million High Streets Heritage Action Zone initiative, which is currently working across more than 60 English high streets. It's funded with £40 million from the Department for Digital, Culture Media and Sport’s Heritage High Street Fund, £52 million from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government’s Future High Streets Fund, and a further £3 million from the National Lottery Heritage Fund.
One of the major aims of the programme is to help people feel proud of where they live. The Cultural Programme is a key part of this. There is £7.4 million available to fund four years of cultural activities to engage communities with their local high streets, and celebrate the role and importance of these historic areas as hubs of the community.
Historic England is leading the Cultural Programme in partnership with Arts Council England and the National Lottery Heritage Fund, which is awarding £3 million.
In 2009, after years of gradual decline, the historic streets of Derby were designated a 'conservation area at risk' and added to Historic England’s Heritage at Risk Register. The city topped a national table of struggling towns and cities, with nearly a quarter of its shops lying empty, and many in disrepair.
However Historic England and Derby City Council took action by launching a partnership scheme. Since 2009 it has refurbished 97 properties, in the Cathedral Quarter and beyond. Both organisations contributed £844,000 over eight years, with £900,000 coming from the private sector. Historic England says:
'The payback has been impressive. The scheme has brought 2,800 square metres of floor space back into use. It's also created 42 new jobs and helped the Cathedral Quarter win the category of Best City Location in the ‘Great British High Street Award’ for 2016.'
'As a result, between 2008 and 2012 Derby' states Historic England 'has weathered the recession far better than other cities. In the UK as a whole, high streets suffered an average 26% decline in footfall. But research in Derby’s Cathedral Quarter shows that it remained vibrant: footfall fell by only 7-9%, helping to make Derby much more resilient than similar cities.'
The Burges area forms a key element of Coventry’s surviving historic townscape and includes three streets: The Burges, Palmer Lane and Hales Street, all of which lie within the Lady Herbert’s Garden Conservation Area.
Buildings on The Burges and Hales Street date from the late medieval period through to the 19th century. Palmer Lane is also a medieval street which runs alongside Coventry’s forgotten river, The Sherbourne.
The Burges area has survived many changes over time, from those made by city planners and architects in the 1930s to the devastation of the Coventry Blitz during the Second World War and the subsequent redevelopment of the city in the 1950s and 1960s. Lack of investment in recent decades has seen the area decline, with the conservation area being added to Historic England’s Heritage at Risk Register. The final heritage shopfront has recently been completed in Historic Coventry Trust’s award-winning regeneration of one of the few intact historic streets in Coventry’s city centre.
The programme to restore or replace 20 shopfronts in the Burges and Hales Street has been finished with further work undertaken to the fabric of the buildings. The work at The Burges and Hales Street has been funded by a grant from Historic England as the demonstrator project for its national £95 million High Streets Heritage Action Zone programme with further support from Coventry City Council.
Above: CGI from Corstophine & Wright of the restored shop fronts of The Burges - for Historic Coventry Trust and Historic England
Ilford is an example of a town that has lost its anchor department store, Debenhams, like so many other places and Head of Regeneration at Redbridge Council, Sharon Strutt, says the Council has had a long hard look at what they can do to help to re-vitalise the high street:
'There isn't the same interest in the shopping of yesteryear and culture and leisure is now a big part of it. Regeneration in Ilford is about partnership and our BID is a big part of that. We want to improve public realm and we are fortunate that our town centre is pedestrianised. We have established a cultural consortium across the Borough and with the aim of curating the town centre. We have a theatre in the centre and we want to bring that culture out into the high street. The BID has done the most amazing job. So many people come in and spend on local businesses, which we have a range of and that are absolutely on the edge. We need visitors to support them.
'Can we encourage markets back? We need to look at that but also how we bring in health facilities into our shopping centre, The Exchange. We want Ilford to be a liveable town centre and we are building 6,000 new homes, which is a third of the Borough's growth. But we must create a liveable neighbourhood. We have a patchwork of land ownership that is not developing and has resulted in holes in the high street. We need better quality developers. We have all the same build costs of London, but being an outer borough, not the values,'
Image: CGI from Marks Barfield of the new Ilford Crossrail Station
Waltham Forest Council is at an exciting point in its development of Walthamstow town centre with investment from the University of Portsmouth wanting a base in London and the new Soho Theatre, a former EMD Granada Cinema where Hitchcock used to watch films, due to open this coming September.
In January 2023, the government announced that two Levelling Up Fund bids investing in projects in Waltham Forest Council have been successful. In March 2023, the government approved the Levelling Up Fund bid for infrastructure funding for Chingford Mount and Highams Park.
The funds will bring upgrades to Leyton Station, Walthamstow Town Centre, Chingford Mount and Highams Park. Projects in Waltham Forest have received the highest amount of funding from the Department of Levelling Up Housing and Communities (DLUHC) of any London borough and are set to receive approximately £39m in total to improve Leyton Station as well as for projects developing a Cultural Quarter across Walthamstow Town Centre.
Leyton station will receive £13.7m after a successful joint bid led by Transport for London (TfL) and the Greater London Authority (GLA). The funds will be used to transform the station, creating step-free access to each platform as well as a new ticket hall, concourse, bridge, and gate line. Usage of the station is predicted to grow significantly over the next 20 years and the improvements are vital to future-proof this important transport hub and improve accessibility for all passengers.
The government’s funding award will be matched by the Council’s longstanding commitment to fund up to £9m towards the project’s delivery, with its contribution secured from new development in the area via the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL). The Council is now working with TfL to develop the programme for taking the project through the next stages of design development, securing all necessary permissions, and on to construction, targeting the opening of the new station facilities in 2026.
A second bid for £17.2m submitted by the Council alone was also successful and will be used to deliver projects that unlock Walthamstow’s potential as an inclusive, safe, and welcoming cultural destination. The intention is that the investment will increase footfall in the Town Centre throughout the day and evening, widen cultural participation, generate opportunities for creative enterprise and create pathways into employment and training for residents.
The government funding will be used to deliver phased enhancements to public spaces in High Street, Hoe Street, and St James Street introducing new lighting, improved surfacing, signage, additional planting, and opportunities for public art.
The improvements to public spaces will be delivered alongside investment in Council-owned heritage buildings across the Town Centre, designed to preserve and enhance their historic character and make them more accessible to the community.
The Council will invest in:
Chestnuts House to create a centre for innovation and creative enterprise;
Hatherley Mews to support workspace, food/drink, and hospitality businesses, creating a destination around Soho Theatre Walthamstow;
Vestry House Museum as a place that celebrates Waltham Forest’s culture and community, widening participation in cultural and creative activities.
The investment forms part of the Council’s work with residents, businesses, and stakeholders to develop Walthamstow’s cultural offer as a legacy from Waltham Forest being London’s first Borough of Culture in 2019. Building on initial engagement in 2022, the Council will continue to work with the local community on plans for Walthamstow’s Cultural Quarter through the Let’s Talk Walthamstow website.
The programme of improvements complements wider Council and private sector-led investment in Walthamstow Town Centre, including delivery of landmark destination Soho Theatre Walthamstow, and ongoing regeneration plans for St James Quarter and 17&Central, which are delivering a range of new and affordable homes, new community facilities, including a new health centre, shops, leisure, and workspaces.
Fay Cannings, Senior Inward Investment Manager, Waltham Forest Council, said at our forum:
'We are trying to unlock a parcel of land in Walthamstow town centre next to the station. We have developed a collaborative model of small business development. It is a boxpark type model and centres around food and those types of providers. It is a model rooted in the community with local traders coming together and trying to complement those businesses on the high street. We are also trying to bring in the culture of businesses creating events.
'We also have the University of Portsmouth landing soon. In February next year 150 students will arrive will a full capacity in 2030. It will give us a £373 million pound boost over a number of years, with linked apprenticeships and jobs. Waltham Forest has had a huge growth thanks to levelling up funding and we have an old shopping centre. Soho Theatre, a historic former Granada EMD cinema is now restored and will be opening up next year. We have a very big creative economy in the Borough and it has added a lot of vibrancy.'
Above: CGI of remodelled interior of EMD Granada Cinema, now converted for Soho Theatre Group, image courtesy of Pilbrow & Partners, who have successfully re-developed the historic building.
Cllr Richard Cook, Leader of Gloucester City Council, was invited to the discussion to describe the balance in developing new retail and business districts and how the high street would survive:
'Our regeneration development started in the noughties but our recent redevelopment of King's Square in Gloucester has been very important. We have talked about the investment of place and the £5 million investment in King's Square has included sculptural features, trees and fountains that the kids love to play in. We have sold our former Debenhams department store to the University of Gloucester who wanted a city centre campus and eventually there will be four thousand students there.
'The forum space we are building will have a green wall for sustainability as well as offices, with a number of houses next to it. Some of these will be affordable and in addition we have brownfield land further away but from where you can walk into the town.
'We are not forgetting our high street in all of this and we have had funding from Historic England to help us. We can control some of the types of shops in the city centre so that we don't double up and there are opportunities to convert some shops to residential.'
Historic England has been concerned for the future life of Gloucester's, Westgate, and has been working to restore its' quality. One of four original Roman routes, Westgate links the spectacular medieval cathedral to the rest of the city. Its array of stunning historic buildings includes the 15th century timber-framed Fleece Inn and Judges’ Lodgings, both of which are on Historic England’s Heritage at Risk register. Despite its strong historic character, proximity to the cathedral and good location, Westgate Street is underperforming.
Historic England states:
'Westgate’s retail environment has changed dramatically in recent years. It once had a strong mix of independent businesses whose owners embraced the street’s historic buildings, but many have moved on and prospective new owners feel the properties are expensive to run and difficult to convert. The street scene is tired, with poor paving, inconsistent signage, and general clutter. Many retail units stand vacant. Locals perceive the area in a negative light and of the thousands of visitors to the cathedral, few are attracted into Westgate Street.
'The Heritage Action Zone will capitalise on Westgate’s untapped potential and boost the number of people living, working and taking pride in the area. The award of up to £1.9m to Gloucester City Council will invest in Westgate Street’s beautiful historic buildings, repairing buildings and historic shopfronts and converting vacant upper floors for new uses. There will be advice and support for businesses in historic properties, and the streetscape will be improved with new signage and branding. The area will be vibrant with cultural activities, from community archaeology to performing arts, and will become known for its attractive evening and night-time offer. The Heritage Action Zone will help Westgate thrive again by bringing a modern business approach to an outstanding historic environment.'
Image above: King's Square Gloucester new public realm improvements with Debenhams department store - now part of the University of Gloucestershire in background (Courtesy Gloucester City Council)
Developer Milligan joined the discussion with CEO Stuart Harris keen to suggest - like other contributors to the discussion - that with their projects in Swansea and Sunderland, it has been the case of balance of cost and values and in which the solutions have been partnership led with add-in government support. Stuart stated:
'We say we want to build more houses but we need to talk about affordable housing among a range of dwellings. The problem with a lot of town centres is that everything closes at 5pm, so we need to bring people back to live there. There should also be different types of workspace. There are very good examples of the re-inventions of markets too.
'With our Swansea project we have a twenty-year partnership with Urban Splash across seven key sites. We believe as one developer compared to lots of different developers in this project, that we can provide a holistic view. Swansea is really the biggest city on the beach in the UK and we are building new offices with a long view of the beach plus some new residential. In the city centre we are bringing in a new office campus which will be half public sector with government employees to encourage them to come back to the centre. We want to bring in a new university innovation hub and re-purpose an old shopping centre.
We have worked with traders in Camden Market and after helping them their sales rocketed. So we set up something called 'Creative Trade' and the first one will be in Swansea. It has 80 different makers involved and will a give a real regional pull through its uniqueness. It aims to bring back identity to a city, really get under the skin of that individual city. We all know that some towns are over-provided for in retail. The question is how much of the high street should you own to avoid fragmentation and you must provide good offices and facilities if you want to drive employees back post Covid.'
'My background is in shopping centres and any project takes over eight years to mature and some developers leave too early. We have worked on shopping centres in Belfast and Bath and it has taken anywhere between five and ten years to mature. A lot of it has been led by the private sector, but now it is much more of a genuine partnership with investors looking long term.
Above: CGI sketch of Swansea Central North project (courtesy Milligan and Swansea City Council)
One new use of vacant shops has been the introduction of health clinics in order that town centre visitors can access tests and health checks more easily. Sheppard Robson is now taking that one stage further by working on a development in Basildon town centre to introduce a new public hospital and healthcare site.
Colin Hockley, Partner at Sheppard Robson contributed to our discussion on this topic. After studying to be an architect, Colin joined the NHS’s design team. In this role, he explored the impact of space and natural light on recovery and started his long-standing interest in how evidence-based design can benefit clinicians, hospital staff, and patients.
Colin went on to deliver major healthcare projects at architectural practices, both in the UK and internationally. By also leading education and workplace projects he has developed fresh perspectives to address the pertinent issues impacting healthcare, including sustainable design approaches, wellness in the workplace and harnessing modern methods of construction to create engaging architecture. Colin’s specialist knowledge has deepened through health-related research projects and the re-writing of several Department of Health HBN documents as well as a number of advisory roles for the NHS.
'Basildon is a unique project in the town centre which will offer a full range of hospital services for the first time. It will be a surgical department and offer operations alongside the traditional outpatient services. It is being built in a former Debenhams store with an 18,000 square meter floor plate. It is connected to a retail centre and the buzz of the bus station next door. Siting something like this in the town centre improves access and especially for low income families trying to access healthcare.
'This is not an NHS facility but you can get NHS services there. It is a place where services have an NHS badge on them but they are not run by the NHS. We are also employed to create all the interiors as well and the way the design of this is going means that it is all about wellbeing. Patients need to feel good going to these places and so do staff. It is the answer to the workforce challenge in the health services with staff retention. Some physical environments and buildings are making staff unwell. So what we have to offer is hospitality levels of service to patients in well designed buildings for them and for those that work in them.'
BDP's Director, Garry Wilding, who works on retail led mixed use developments and regeneration schemes and who also joined our discussion, agreed with Colin about the need to re-develop former department stores for other uses. He mentioned the firm's project in Poole in this context. To reduce the current pressures on the NHS, interdisciplinary design consultancy, BDP and its construction and facilities management partner, CFES have been working with University Hospitals Dorset NHS Foundation Trust to open a new centre for breast screening and diagnostics in Beales department store in Poole. Situated in the Dolphin shopping centre, it will also offer testing and assessments for orthopaedics, ophthalmology and dermatology diagnoses.
Garry leads large teams who conceive and deliver significant and complex projects throughout the UK and internationally. His most recent completed project is The Lexicon in Bracknell, the creation of a new town centre for one of the original New Towns and his team’s refurbishment and reinvention of the internal environment of Meadowhall is due for completion later this year. This will be followed by the next phase of work at Meadowhall which is an extension to transform the external environment and enhance the restaurant and leisure offer.
The Lexicon is a next generation shopping and leisure destination. It offers a vibrant mix of brands and experiences providing a new social and cultural heart for Bracknell, offering soft green landscaped spaces for entertainment and events, and a high quality mix of shops and leisure venues connected in a pedestrian-friendly environment.
There are six blocks that constitute the Northern Retail Quarter. The scheme comprises two department stores, retail units, restaurants and cafes, 10 screen cinema, multi storey car park and 92 apartments defining a series of new covered and open streets and civic squares as part of the 60,000 sqm scheme town centre regeneration.
The project has been developed utilising a rich warm palette of materials including brick, timber, feature perforated aluminium, coloured glazing, gold/silver coloured copper cladding and green walls along with elegant street covers and canopies. A key concept for the scheme and public realm design has been ‘the greening of Bracknell’ to transform the character of the existing town.
'Even before the pandemic struck early in 2020, the way we shopped, spent our leisure time and worked was changing, driven predominantly by technology. Like it or not, the pandemic has accelerated and intensified this societal reconfiguration.
'Arguably, the retail landscape has undergone the most painful and seismic level of change as e-commerce takes centre stage...The question of how retailers maintain a strong connection with, and grow their customer base is still to be answered...Changes to the planning classes will also influence and facilitate more flexibility to adapt to demand, such as allowing Class E conversions from retail to residential through PD rights, which will bring more living accommodation to our urban centres.
'We must seize this opportunity to make changes that could generate stronger, more active, vibrant, mixed and ultimately sustainable places. The shopping centre in Hammersmith has become an unloved place and we wanted to make it a place where everyone wants to go feel welcome and has some kind of ownership. We have been working with IKEA on this, which wanted a place in the city, as opposed to their usual out of town base.'
BDP states the project has now led to...'a transformed 1970s shopping centre which now serves as a warm and inviting gathering place for the local community. Embracing the principles of biophilic design and natural materials, the project creates a vibrant heart for Hammersmith, where people can connect, shop, learn, relax, and have fun.
'Spanning over 37,000 square meters, it marks IKEA's first city centre shopping mall globally and their inaugural refurbished site in the UK. Offering a more compact yet curated shopping experience. The store, houses 18 room sets, compared to more than 30 in a typical Ikea store.
'At the centre of the development lies a set of amphitheatre steps, connecting the street level to a spacious public area above. These steps not only provide a place to rest and meet friends but also serve as a focal point for events and performances. A locally run cafe above the mall sits beside an outdoor space with a wildflower meadow, seating and planters for council tenants. This tranquil space offers more than just a shopping experience; it hosts yoga sessions, boxercise classes, and even furniture workshops organised by IKEA. Additionally, the community-driven educational initiatives create an enriching environment, fostering customer loyalty and engagement.'
The Lexicon, Bracknell, courtesy of BDP.
In conclusion to our debate, Ellie Evans, Partner at Volterra - an economics consultancy - stated that it is important to understand the baseline to any area, who works and lives there, how the transport works and how statistics inform the right strategy for high streets and town centres:
'In order to come up with the correct scheme we do need to understand the needs and uses of a place and challenge the viability of a lot of proposals, as well as ask questions about time horizons, both short and long term. It is difficult because of fragmented ownership but we need to discuss how priorities are met. Cadogan like a lot of other developers have stewardship strategies now and they really do go out to look at areas from both the social and community point of view and measure themselves against whether there developments do give back social value.
'However, we also need to work out how we fund things like social value when there isn't private money to do that. It comes down to the public sector pots of money and there have been levelling up bids to help us. But we need to look at the longer term and that's difficult with our political horizons. We need some commitment to invest long term. At the moment, it is all about land values in the economic sense and we need to put more weight on social value and wellbeing.
'Finally, there are some pots of money that are not well used in terms of Section 106. We could be cleverer in how we invest in those as well as the district improvement money. Low cost interventions can make big differences such as micro mobility hubs which can benefit high streets in encouraging more active transport.'
Future Cities Forum is grateful to all our contributors for their input and research into this important discussion and report.