As Spring emerges, there has been some positive news for town centres since the start of the year. Last month the former John Lewis at Birmingham Grand Central received unanimous approval to be turned into a new mixed-use development containing offices, gym, food market, bar and restaurant. The Hammerson site to be called ‘Drum’ (reflecting the shape of the building but also a nod to The Crown pub across the road where a 1968 blues band called Earth became heavy metal legends Black Sabbath) has been designed by Ken Shuttleworth of Make Architects also responsible for another landmark Birmingham building The Cube.
For those that aren’t aware (as I wasn’t), the John Lewis at Grand Central was open for 234 weeks before the first lockdown hit in 2020 and has been closed since. In announcing plans for Drum back in January Andy Street, Mayor of the West Midlands said that ‘City centres have to move away from retail only’. This approach, and the different ways to achieve it, is what this blog explores.
Regional city centres are often harder to ‘unlock’ than that of say capital/larger cities where footfall is higher, disposable income is often higher, public transport may be more effective and key retail areas may have greater support from councils/government (list not exhaustive). However, diverging away from a retail only approach is a strategy which can be utilised to breathe life back into unused buildings and attract a more diverse range of visitors back into urban centres.
In addition to the Drum approach of complementing a mainly office use with other traditional uses such as food and beverage, there are other approaches for landowners, developers and Councils to implement.
In Bristol for example, the former 70-year home of Marks & Spencer will become a temporary art and sustainability centre following the stores closure last month. A stone’s throw away, another large department store (Debenhams) has been closed since 2021 ; however, there are signs of life, with the building recently being purchased and its interior cleared. While there has not been an announcement of what the building will be used for, the Mayor of Bristol, Marvin Rees, has suggested it will be a mixture of uses like retail, office and residential but that any use must tie in with the City Council’s own plans for the wider city centre. Certainly, the reopening of this prominent city centre building in whatever capacity will be a positive for Bristol. The Bristol Property Agents Association annual newsletter also identifies that “Broadmead faces the prospect of a major realignment as shopping habits change and unit configurations become increasingly outdated”. As well as the Galleries c.£550m GDV redevelopment, it suggests “that some other parts of Broadmead would also benefit by increasing occupational density through a mix of uses: to change the dynamic of the area, make it a 24-hour location, and generate additional footfall for the businesses that remain.”
The ever-evolving nature of urban centres is of course a two-way street. Rather than all responsibility lying at the doors of landowners/developers, Councils’ must create facilitative environments through local plans and policy to enable town centres to become truly mixed use, as opposed to the historic reliance of Class A1 retail. We have seen this shift in Government policy with the creation of Class E (covering Commercial, Business and Service uses) however local councils can take this further in order to shape the future of their centre.
One example of this is the Bristol City Centre Development and Delivery Plan (DDP) that is in preparation to guide the recovery, regeneration and transformation of Bristol city centre. It builds on and progresses the City Centre Framework (adopted in 2020) which set out principles and broad proposals for regeneration and development. If approved, the Bristol City Centre DDP will become a ‘material consideration’ in the planning process, when planning application decisions are made, as well as to generally guide the Council when making land and investment decisions. I’m particularly excited to be part of Bristol City Centre as it evolves over the next decade and help clients utilise town planning as a positive agent of change.
Lichfields Insight ‘London’s Town Centres’ suggests 4 potential outcomes projected for town centres and while this is London focused, these can be adapted and are still very relevant at a regional level too. The Insight recommends policy makers, asset managers and other town centre stakeholders consider the appropriateness of alternative actions for their centres, including:
Regeneration strategies and Town Centre frameworks: these need to be informed by centre level analysis of past and future projected changes and an assessment of the needs and opportunities for change for individual centres, potentially accommodating a more diverse mix of uses (including education, healthcare and residential), and steering such change spatially.
Planning policies and site allocations in statutory Development Plans: these should be reviewed and updated to provide a positive platform to support centres’ adaption and diversification, incorporating the Class E flexibility.
Development management: the assessment and determination of planning applications should support development intensification and optimisation on appropriate sites in or on the edge of centres, including, for example, identifying suitable sites for tall buildings and appropriate mixed-use locations.
Town centre management: to pro-actively manage all town centre environs but particularly for centres where churn is lower.
With these suggestions in mind, while there continues to be negative ‘doom and gloom’ conversations around the future of the high street and town centres, with the right combination of top-down legislation/governance and bottom-up innovation and creativity, the future of city/town centres looks bright. I sincerely hope we can one day reflect that the move away from ‘retail only’ allowed urban centres to thrive once again.
London's town centres retail mix of the future, Lichfields
Birmingham John Lewis store to be replaced by offices and foodhall, ITV
Empty Bristol M&S store to become art and environment hub, BBC
New owner of former Debenhams department store sets goal for ‘thriving city’, Bristol World Bristol City Centre DPD
Birmingham City Council unanimously approves Hammerson’s transformational plans for its Drum repurposing, Hammerson
Overcoming the barriers to growth, BPPA Newsletter