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The case for the high street – part two
This blog follows on from my blog last week, describing our research into the issues facing town centres in the North East, and our findings following the roundtables we held in Newcastle, Middlesbrough, Hexham, Berwick-upon-Tweed and Stanley. In this second instalment, I look at the recommendations coming out of our work with the North-East England Chamber of Commerce (NEECC), and the need for a holistic approach in making our centres fit for the twenty-first century.    There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to ‘saving’ the high street. If there was, then we would have cracked the problem long before now. Each and every town centre is different. That goes as much for the approach of traders towards engaging with other stakeholders as it does to the retail offer and shopping environment provided. Whilst the Business Improvement Districts (BID) in Newcastle-upon-Tyne has racked up some impressive achievements – increasing average spend by 16% in a three-year period – that in Hexham (in nearby Northumberland) has ended up in relative acrimony. Their success can only be achieved through effective collaboration but, as my colleague Summer Haly has highlighted in her own blog, they can play a significant role in generating economic growth. With the views from the roundtables held in these and three other town centres (Hexham, Berwick and Stanley) at the forefront of our minds, our joint (NEECC/Lichfields) report provides recommendations in four key areas. 1. Creating a vision The single-most important objective should be to create a vision of what town centres should look like and offer to visitors - enshrining this in a strategy, with a set of short, medium and long-term actions. One or more Unique Selling Points (USP) should be developed as part of this vision, and then promoted along with every aspect of the centre. This includes the retail and leisure offer, other things to do/places of interest and how to get there (not forgetting where to park…). The coastline in Northumberland is stunning, but how many tourists actually consider visiting Berwick upon Tweed Town Centre, or even know where it is? Not many, apparently – but surely, this is a missed opportunity? 2. Broadening the offer Of all the attention paid to town centres over the last year or so, probably the biggest theme has been the shift away from retail. This is not as easy to solve as it sounds, given that the food and drink sector has shown signs of saturation in some locations. That said, smaller centres still have some catching-up to do, particularly those with an evening economy focused towards alcohol – and ‘family friendly’ is the watchword here. To its credit, the Government is alive to the need for more flexibility, as shown by a succession of amendments to the permitted development rights (PDRs) regime, and further PDRs proposals included in a consultation currently underway. But local authorities must also think about what new (non-retail) ‘anchors’ they can attract, in order to keep people coming in. 3. Taking a pro-active and holistic approach Environmental improvements alone won’t solve all town centres’ problems but they do help. Getting the basics right means keeping the centre clean and tidy, safe, attractive and easy to navigate. To see these improvements, though, people need to be drawn in on a regular basis, and a well-curated programme of events can play a part, reinforcing the centre’s role as a civic heart. New residential development and student accommodation (in the right locations) also help to generate additional footfall and spending in existing facilities. They are not Main Town Centre Uses in planning speak but bring a range of benefits. 4. Business leading the way They might not want to hear this, but retailers could do more to secure their future – by reinvigorating their offer and the customer experience, for example. Independents, however, also need better support from local authorities in order to thrive. Perhaps more than national multiples, the more tailored-service independent traders typically offer gives them a decent chance of bucking recent trends towards use of the internet and out-of-centre retail parks, but to do this they need help and advice (the ones we met in Stanley, County Durham, certainly felt so). As I suggested in my previous blog, they need to embrace the internet, develop and promote their online offer, and promote delivery and click-and-collect services where they can. Final thoughts We cannot look at these issues through rose-tinted glasses. The economic circumstances of individual areas, particularly in the North-East, mean that some centres will inevitably contract and their importance diminish. But is it worth investing in our town centres? Certainly it is. Although their social role is perhaps even more important, the economic benefits of a thriving town centre far outweigh the short-term costs in, for example, creating an effective centre management function or creating a prospectus for investment (as Middlesbrough Council has done). What is the right approach for one centre may be wrong for another. Our recommendations could be seen as a shopping list (excuse the pun) for town centre stakeholders to pick from. Neglecting one area at the expense of others, however, is unlikely to reap the same rewards. In an age when social media and instant information rule, it is not enough having the right offer if no-one knows about it. Having met people from all parts of the North-East, I’m confident we can re-establish our centres at the heart of the community. Where there is a will, there is a way.

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The case for the high street – part one
Town centres are the heart of our communities. Not only a focal point for shops and services, but a hub for local people – a place to work, eat and drink, relax and socialise. It won’t have escaped most people’s attention, though, that they are facing significant challenges. These include the ongoing growth of internet shopping, competition from out-of-centre retail and leisure destinations, and wider economic conditions. Rather than abating, the retail storm has gathered yet more pace over the last year or so. Recently, House of Fraser announced that they are to close four more stores, with Debenhams saying in October that fifty of their stores would go the same way. Information from the Local Data Company, issued in November 2018, showed a big spike in the overall number of store closures in the UK, rising from around 20,000 in the first half of 2017 to over 24,000 in the first six months of 2018. Although these are nation-wide issues, the north-east of England has suffered more than most areas, with an average unit vacancy rate the highest of all the regions. Portas and Grimsey have both had their say (the latter twice), but not until recently has the penny really dropped with the Government. A Future High Streets Fund worth £675m was announced in the Autumn Budget and, whilst a small amount compared to the money poured into other sectors, it is better late than never. Funding for infrastructure, site assembly and heritage-led regeneration will not solve all of the problems but is a welcome start. Retail is the third largest employment sector in the north-east and surely worth supporting as much as other parts of the economy. As a Partner Member of the North East England Chamber of Commerce (NEECC), Lichfields were delighted to join them on a project looking at these issues. Our research involved looking at various case studies, as well as roundtables in five centres, all with different characteristics. The feedback we received from these roundtables – held in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Middlesbrough, Hexham, Berwick-upon Tweed and Stanley - helped us get to the heart of these issues, and how they are being tackled by traders, local authorities and other stakeholders.   So what did we find? Hexham has a relatively affluent population and is - on the face of it, at least - a thriving town, yet perceptions are that it could have a much better offer. Berwick Town Centre should capture more spend from both its sizeable catchment population and the significant numbers of tourists visiting the area, but no-one seems to be promoting it. Stanley has perhaps lost out the most from the large regional centres, including Newcastle and the Gateshead Metrocentre, yet independent retailers there seemed more driven to defy their circumstances. All three are small to medium-sized centres and all three suffer from a lack of effective collaboration between retailers and other stakeholders.   Everything is relative though. Newcastle is the largest destination in the north-east, although it needs to do more to differentiate itself from major destinations further afield. A Business Improvement District (BID) there has delivered significant investment and increases in visitor numbers. Whilst Middlesbrough Council is pushing hard to attract investment, and does more than most to support independents, its retail sector (like most places) is declining. These are two large centres with very different means of engagement. There are common themes throughout the centres we looked at – the need for a more family-friendly food and beverage offer fits with the need to move away from an alcohol-focused night-time economy. Rather than bemoaning the impact of the internet, retailers need to embrace online, promote themselves better, and offer click and collect and delivery services where they can. Local authorities should provide better support to independent retailers, take a more flexible approach to changes of use (haven’t we been saying this for a while ..…), and look to new (non-retail) anchors to draw people in. These and other centres across the region all have different challenges. There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution. There are, though, good examples of best practice from these and other centres in the region which can be adapted to local circumstances. These solutions require buy-in from all stakeholders, and particularly those that have the most to lose or gain – the retailers themselves. Alongside the NEECC we have put together a series of recommendations, based on this best practice, as well as Lichfields’ wide experience of advising both public and private sector clients across the country. Read my next blog to find out more about these recommendations, and how we can help secure our town centres’ future roles.  

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