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Town centres should be designated as ‘infrastructure’ to open up major funding streams

Scale of change and remodelling required in town centres is unprecedented – comparable with post-war re-building programmes

The unprecedented cross-sector industry grouping, the Distressed Town Centre Property Taskforce has today published its final report. For the first time, it identifies the major property-related barriers to the vitality and performance of town and city centres.

The report highlights that a large number of towns and cities need reshaping on a scale not seen since the building programmes of the Victorian era or post-war Britain in order to survive and thrive for the 21st century. Future-proofing is now required because the structural changes that are shaking our communities are so fundamental. Not least, the dramatic impact of the recession on town centres, the oversupply of retail floor space and massive shifts in consumer shopping patterns to multi-channel which is not a short-term fad.

The Taskforce was established following the Government’s response to the recommendations from the Portas Review and makes radical recommendations based on clear evidence. This allows both central and local government to make informed decisions over the priorities with regard to High Street regeneration.

Based on research by Colliers International, ‘Beyond Retail: Redefining the shape and purpose of town centres’, clearly demonstrates the unprecedented scale, background and long-term implications of change in retail over the last five years. The necessity for the nation’s town centres to evolve is now extremely urgent and will not happen organically. The required change, in response to changing retail demands based on the shift to online shopping, should not be necessarily be viewed in a negative way but as an opportunity for towns and cities to adapt to modern communities.

Principal recommendations:

  • Government should designate town and city centres as key national ‘infrastructure’ in order to open significant funding opportunities currently not accessible. This could be in the form of access to the UK’s Infrastructure Guarantee Scheme or any future round of the Local Infrastructure Fund. Commercially, this could attract private sector infrastructure funding, with the initial step to establish a High Street Infrastructure Platform (HSIP) to engage with these institutions.
  • Multiple ownership in town and city centres is a major barrier to change. Government should pilot a joint venture vehicle, and associated high street property fund, to pool land assets and address fragmented ownership.
  • Aggressive use of compulsory purchase powers should be encouraged, simplifying the current system for local councils, in order to bring about the scale required for major urban reconfiguration and regeneration.
  • Local authorities should take more risk in investing capital reserves now, which can be replenished as the economy recovers. The ‘rainy day’ for town centres has arrived.
  • The private sector should be utilised to equip local authorities in terms of finance and human resources; upskilling and best practice support for councils is critical to encourage strong local leadership and planning.
  • Significantly greater flexibility in the planning system is required to enable quick and easy change of use from redundant retail premises to more economically productive uses, achieved against a strategic masterplan allowing clarity over the long term rather than piecemeal conversion.

Mark Williams, Chairman, Distressed Town Centre Property Taskforce and partner at asset managers, Hark Group, commented:

“Over the last 12 months it has become increasingly clear that waiting for so-called ‘normal’ economic growth to return is unviable: many more town centres will have embarked on the course of terminal decline. Successful rejuvenation of the nation’s city and town centres requires radical action on a scale unprecedented since the country was rebuilt after World War Two.

“Solutions vary from place to place but for the overwhelming majority a smaller retail core supplemented by leisure, residential and community uses is likely. Current retail capacity models are not fit for purpose.

“Strong local leadership is a pre-requisite for the major repositioning, redevelopment and large scale long-term masterplanning now required to meet the demands of modern communities. The recommendations we lay out today are radical because the challenges are serious and solutions are overdue. Critically, our recommendations offer a clear vision of rejuvenated town and city centres which are fit for the future. Not only places where people can shop but where they live, eat, work and are entertained. We also have clear routes for implementing the recommendations and significant support from key decision makers in the commercial and public sectors.”

The Taskforce brings together both public and private sectors, including professional bodies and trade associations, with senior representatives from banking, retail, local government and the property industry.

Member organisations and businesses include Association of Chief Estates Surveyors (ACES), British Council of Shopping Centres (BCSC), British Property Federation (BPF), British Retail Consortium (BRC), Investment Property Forum (IPF), Property Bankers Forum (PBF), Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS), and The Booksellers Association. There are also key representatives from GL Hearn, Gloucestershire LEP, Javelin Group, Legal and General Property, Scottish Widows Investment Partnership (SWIP), and Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS).The authors are grateful to the Local Government Association (LGA) for the assistance and advice it provided.

To download a copy of ‘Beyond Retail: Redefining the shape and purpose of town centres’, please click here.