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Our Future High Streets forum report

Natural history pop-up exhibition (by Portsmouth Museums) in empty store in the Cascades Shopping Centre, Portsmouth

Future Cities Forum held an important 'Future of High Streets' discussion this week with Sunderland City Council, Portsmouth City Council, Historic England, developer Igloo Regeneration, National Museum of the Royal Navy and the British Retail Consortium.

Questions were asked about the work of protecting historic shop fronts while towns and cities try to regenerate themselves post Covid-19, and how the high street will change with new uses for shop and department store properties? There was also the question over the role of theatres and museums in bringing back footfall to the high street and whether rent reductions will encourage return of retailers in greater numbers?

The UK government 'High streets fund' has been vital in enabling local authorities to rejuvenate struggling areas and more funds are being annnounced in the Budget this week. Cllr Steve Pitt, Deputy Leader and Cabinet Member for Culture, Leisure and Economic Development at Portsmouth City Council, told the forum that funding was given for two centres, one in Fratton Road and the other in Commercial Road. So often the forum hears stories of run down shopping centres that need help and this was true for Portsmouth's Bridge Street shopping centre stated Steve:

'The Bridge Street shopping centre is unloved and with the funding we want to secure housing on the upper floors with pop up shops and a library on the ground floor. The same for the anchor site in Commercial Road - which hosts a street market dating back centuries - where there should be room for community and culture on the ground floor and homes upstairs.

'This is all based on research from local people who tell us what they want. Part of this is creating good public realm space with nice places to eat and drink with hang out spaces for families.'

'So much of Portsmouth was bombed in the second world war and this includes Commercial and Fratton roads, so we don't have to worry too much about preserving historic shop fronts but where we do have them in Castle Road, we leave them and they are fine....where we have put thought is in attracting people back into centres and we spent only £7,000 on putting a natural history exhibit back into the centre and that drew 60,000 people. It was money well spent.'

'We had an experience recently when we lost both of our anchor department stores in the Southsea area of Portsmouth which is the main tourist area. However the Knight & Lee store (previously part of John Lewis) is being converted with a food market, gym and co-working spaces with a hotel on the upper floor. The Debenhams store across the road now has planning permission for upper floor conversion to residential which we need and the ground floor is 50% let to a health hub which will bring back thousands of people to the Southsea centre. We are seeing a lot more pop-ups and setting up a giant indoor market during the pandemic has helped market traders. This has done really well. Retail in the High Street is not finished but the identikit approach to high streets is dead.'

The Chief Executive of Sunderland City Council, Patrick Melia, spoke about getting the balance right in reflecting the past of a city while positioning for its future:

'The city of Sunderland sometimes reflects too much about the past - our coal mining and ship building - and we are currently developing the old Vaux Brewery site and that's great, but we want to tell the story of the future. We have the largest car plant in the UK and we haven't celebrated car building enough. Our heritage is about innovation and engineering and that's also relevant to the future.

CGI of the 'Culture House' in Keel Square, Sunderland - which will contain a new library and meeting spaces (Riverside Sunderland)

'The High Streets fund is being poured into our Culture House which is a derelict site and contains a library but it will also be a meeting space where people can interact with businesses, different ethnic groups and ages, and where the future can take them, where they will see a positive future for themselves.

'Sunderland is also an 'intelligent city'. We have lost our ship building and coal mining, but have replaced all those jobs. Unfortunately in the process we have hollowed out the city centre, so for the future we have to look at what is right for our residents, how we can re-connect the city internally and connect our communities. We must be a smart city, because that will have a huge impact on health and education'.

'We are re-purposing several historic buildings in the city centre with new tenants. These include a micro brewery and a hair salon and independent retailers and this is creating a community. We also have a Debenhams store that has closed but we are in conversations with IMAX about a new cinema and entertainment venue. on that site. The growth of independents really heartens me in Sunderland. I think there will be much more communal mix with people being entertained in the library or cinema and then visiting independent shops. Eight thousand new jobs in the city centre will help bring vibrancy back with 1,000 new homes. We have seen student accommodation growth but people living there all the year will bring back the evening economy. You can walk from the middle of the city to the beach in 15 minutes and that is a unique thing if we can connect the two.

'The council has really helped to forge the vision for the future of the city of Sunderland', stated Peter Connolly, CEO of Igloo Regeneration which is master-minding a plan to bring orchards and allotments back into the centre as well as housing and a green heating system as part of the Riverside Sunderland development.

'The city is incredibly green and we are working on opening areas and the connection routes. Two new bridges will be put in place and this will help with cycling and pedestrian links and we are also determined to keep car traffic out. We are aiming to create places where communities can talk, where they want to meet and have a reason for going, a sense of place. Applications are in for planning housing involving smart living with the city's aim of being carbon zero by 2030 and this is complemented by improving biodiversity with orchards where people can pick fruit and grow produce in allotments in accessible areas.'

HMS Trincomalee in snow, part of the National Museum Royal Navy site in Hartlepool (Photo from Tumblr ltwilliammowett)

Dominic Tweddle, Director General of the National Museum of the Royal Navy described how working with maritime history of Hartlepool and creating high quality cultural places will draw investment back to the town, where much of the historic buildings have been demolished:

'Big shopping centres have not given Hartlepool a sense of place and most people go out of town to shop. Hartlepool has a lovely enclosed harbour basin and we are trying to use this to create a centre. Our museum (based around the 1816 frigate HMS Trincomalee) controls both sides of the basin and we want to re-use the buildings for bars and restaurants to create interest. 'Installing heritage' was tried in past but didn't work very well so now we are building new galleries and bringing collections in where we can re-purpose the shopping centre into galleries. We are also using the historic ship and using art and performance to create life and buzz. We are not directly revitalising retail but it is creating further incentives to invest.'

'Authenticity is important. Harry Potter, for instance, can be authentic as it is a modern phenomenon. It's really important to start from where you are, and if you are working in a historic place you have to work from there and that might be the collections and how they connect to the city. Museums should be forward looking too. We include technology for the future war at sea and this is a gateway for people to come in and discover. I think it's important to start from the present and then work your way backwards, rather the other way round. There can be a problem in how funding flows around cities, because they don't always connect together, In Hartlepool we are working with the council on how we will connect work between the historic basin, the city centre and the railway station. Let's put some clear routes in.'

CGI of proposed renovation of Shelton Square, Coventry (part of City Centre South regeneration plan by Chapman Taylor / Shearer Property Regen. Ltd)

Chapman Taylor's urban regeneration master plan for City Centre South in Coventry was submitted for planning application last December 2020, but has been warmly welcomed by people living there. The plan aims to upgrade several areas of the historic heart of Coventry, including Bull Yard, Shelton Square, City Arcade and Hertford Street, and will make the city a significant residential, shopping and leisure destination in the West Midlands.

Among its provisions, the greatly improved urban environment will include new residential apartments at the upper levels, new public spaces, new retail units, F&B and leisure and community uses to activate the street level. A curated pavilion building will stand in the heart of a new plaza, which will be fronted by the city's listed and much-loved indoor market. A new hotel, medical centre and cinema will complete the plan.

The proposals have been based on some key principles, namely to create a strong sense of place, a new but authentic quarter, drawing on the traditional city streetscape, to enhance the setting of listed buildings and to create a development that will stand the test of time. The architectural firm states that the design will remedy ' the mistakes of the past while respecting the best elements of the area's heritage and reinstating a permeable street pattern. The plans are inspired by a wish to restore the authentic spirit of Coventry, including the best pre- and post-war architecture, without resorting to pastiche.'

'The vast majority of the historic environment is adaptable and the high street needs to learn to wash its face' commented Louise Brennan, Director of Historic England's Heritage Action Zone (HAZ) Programme:

'The High Street (across the UK) needs new uses and it needs to diversify with more than just shopping. We need use our historic buildings and not be precious. The historic environment of the high street is egalitarian, you don't have to pay an entrance fee to enjoy it, it is for everyone.

'A lot of our high street houses are in very diverse places. When you think of a place like the Burges in Coventry, there are so many different communities represented there, for instance, guys from Afghanistan running the tailors. Leicester - again, very diverse and all those people are really engaged with who was using their shops 100 years ago, so they value the heritage.

'It is really interesting how the smaller independents have been able to adapt in times of Covid-19. When we put two million pounds into the Burges in Coventry, all the independents were interested in investing in their buildings and I am sure that with the big names that just wouldn't have happened.'

'The idea of meanwhile uses - like the brilliant 'natural history' example in Portsmouth - is very helpful but they cannot be the only activity on the high street. What is interesting is how independents have flourished in the pandemic. Little retail operators have been able to adapt in a way the big chains haven't. The Burges renovation project has continued though lock-down. All the local owners are independent and it has gone forward. I don't think this would have happened if the big groups has been involved,'

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 and since 2009 this 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.

The payback Historic England says has been impressive. The scheme has brought back 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 it insists, between 2008 and 2012, Derby weathered the recession far better than other cities. In the UK as a whole, high streets suffered an average 26% decline in footfall.

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 designation of Derby's historic streets as a Conservation Area has been a major factor in turning the area's economic fortunes round. For businesses and shoppers in Iron Gate, Wardwick, the Strand, Saddler Gate and surrounding streets, the historic character of the buildings is an attraction.

Dominic Curran, Head of Property Policy at the British Retail Consortium added that there has to be a re-focus for the high street post pandemic, but that retail will be 'supplemented not supplanted':

' It reflects a social trend towards more city centre living, a diversification of uses and this was really happening before Covid-19. Some retailers are happy about this because they are getting rid of property and there is a relief about the re-evaluation of rates and that rents have been reduced. Culture means more footfall in city centres and that means more viability. But markets will re-dress the fortunes of high streets. Already John Lewis is on the road in Oxford Street to convert some of its' upper floors to offices. Other department stores will be turned into hotels with food markets on the ground floor, but give it time, it will all shake out.

'Speaking to our members, they are seeing that physical store and online are totally integrated, where the store will be showroom to drive people to shop online, but also online will work to get people into store, changing according to the profile of each location - but very much making a seamless customer journey. A lot of locations are not viable but the store will be a showroom and the website will help lead people to the store. The nature of the local market online will have an impact on the viability of the local physical store.'


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