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Moving on up? Levelling-up town centres across Northern England
It has, without question, been a challenging year for our town and city centres. As the global pandemic continues and lockdowns come and go, a raft of the nation’s most famous retailers have disappeared from high streets across the country. As in the rest of the developed world, the Covid-19 pandemic has been a ‘game changer’ for the sector. With the growth in online shopping over the last decade or so, most centres had already devised strategies based on re-focusing their offer away from retailing and toward a leisure and food and beverage-based offer. However, successive lockdowns have acted as a catalyst in speeding up changes in shopping behaviour, and impacted directly on the leisure and hospitality sector to the extent that it is now quite unclear how centres will function as restrictions ease. In the North of England, our town and city centres have suffered more than most in recent years. While Covid-19 has sped up the process of change, even prior to the pandemic many centres were already experiencing major challenges due to both changes in shopping behaviour and weak underlying economic conditions. The Government’s Levelling Up Fund Prospectus, published in March 2021, identifies a total of £4.8 billion to be invested over the coming years to support town centre and high street regeneration, local transport projects, and cultural and heritage assets across the country. In addition to the Levelling Up Fund, as part of the Government’s wider package of interventions, there are three key funding streams, which have already seen a great deal of uptake across the North: Future High Streets Fund – This fund seeks to allocate £830 million to help deliver transformative changes to struggling high streets; Towns Fund – 100 cities, towns and areas have been invited to bid for part of this £3.6 billion fund designed for proposals which drive economic growth. In many places, town centres are integral to these schemes; and High Street Heritage Action Zones – Seeking to transform High Street buildings which can help to fuel economic, social and cultural recovery. Town centre stakeholders are responding with a range of radical and ambitious projects. These include strategic interventions by local authorities, including through the acquisition of shopping centres and use of Compulsory Purchase Order powers. With innovative and ambitious strategies now in place in many towns – and Government funding available to support delivery - there are grounds for optimism over the future of our town centres. Lichfields’ Insight, ‘Moving on up? Levelling up Town Centres across Northern England’, reviews the various different funding bids currently under consideration. Using this research, we have identified six key themes which underpin the different plans and strategies currently under consideration. These are: Health and Wellbeing - With the demise of retail, we need to find a reason to draw visitors into town centres. As well as more pleasant and healthy outdoor spaces and experiences, this could also involve locating other essential services close to transport hubs where they can help to maintain footfall. Education - Universities and colleges have long been key parts of daily life in our city centres. Opportunities exist to locate student populations in the heart of these centres, where they can contribute to vitality and viability. Tourism - Many of the North’s town and cities have fascinating visitor attractions and dramatic physical and geographical environs. An ambitious and coherent tourism strategy should seek to make the most of these unique assets to drive trips to their town centres. Heritage - The North has a rich and varied history, the remnants of which live on in many of our town and city centres. They can make a real contribution to the environment and attractiveness of these towns as visitor destinations. Digital and creative - Whilst retail may never return to its previous levels, flexibility is required to re-purpose the floorspace left behind by these vacancies. Utilising new funding streams and planning reforms, space should be made to accommodate innovative small businesses which will contribute to the vibrancy and culture of town centres. Town centre living - As retail space recedes, we need to ensure our town centres remain attractive places to live. As well as making an invaluable contribution to housing supply in our urban areas, maintaining a meaningful 24-hour population in town centres will in turn drive demand for services and facilities which contribute to the vitality and viability of the centres. With these themes in mind, our Insight provides evidence across the North of innovation, optimism and ambition in the town centre sector, which means the future may not be as bleak as many sceptics would have you believe.

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Revolution or evolution? A new future for Scotland's town centres
It has been another tumultuous few weeks for our town and city centres. As the pandemic and UK-wide lockdowns continue, a raft of the nation’s most famous retailers are soon to disappear from high streets across the country. Neither Debenhams nor Arcadia’s high profile Topshop or Burton brands have been able to secure buyers for their existing retail units, and those stores will now add to the ever-increasing level of vacancy on the high street. These stores alone span 562 retail units totalling 1,389,137 m2 of floor space, or the equivalent of almost 200 football pitches[1]. Symbolically for Scotland, the iconic Jenners department store in Edinburgh is to close after 183 years. Amid all of this bad news comes the publication of ‘A New Future for Scotland’s Town Centres’ by the Town Centre Action Plan Review Group, Chaired by Professor Leigh Sparks. The report is a follow-up to the Scottish Government’s 2013 Town Centre Action Plan, which itself emphasised the role of town centres and the need to prioritise and support them. It promoted the Town Centre First principle, and explored themes including town centre living, accessible public services, proactive planning, digital towns, enterprising communities and vibrant local economies. For a period during the years that followed, there were encouraging signs. Lichfields undertook our own research (Supporting Scotland’s Growth: What Next for Town Centre and Retail Development?) in 2016 which suggested that, whilst the sector had been subject to considerable change, it continued to offer significant growth potential. Indeed, at that time, our research suggested that cities such as Stirling were expected to generate growth of over 20% in terms of retail and leisure GVA. We also found that retail and leisure jobs accounted for over 25% of total jobs across Scotland and contributed to around £88 billion of consumer spending. The sector therefore continues to be pivotal to the future social and economic wellbeing of both Scotland and the wider UK. However, as in the rest of the developed world, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a ‘game changer’ for our town centres. With the growth in online shopping over the last decade or so, most centres had already devised strategies based on re-focusing their offer away from retailing and toward a leisure and food and beverage-based offer. However, successive lockdowns have both acted as a catalyst in speeding up changes in shopping behaviour and impacted very directly on the leisure and hospitality sector, to the extent that it is now quite unclear how many centres will function when restrictions ease. Against this background, ‘A New Future for Scotland’s Town Centres’ acknowledges some of the successes which followed the publication of their 2013 report, but does not shy away from several radical new recommendations which aim to counter the damage caused by COVID-19. Firstly, the Group wants to further strengthen the position of town centres in national planning policy, including by prioritising centres within the next National Planning Framework 4, developing Town Centre Plans with local communities, and placing increased emphasis upon data and the monitoring of town centre health. Together, these initiatives seek to acknowledge that town centres are unique places and have specific characteristics and communities to consider. Secondly, the Group asks the Scottish Government to review current tax, funding and development systems to better reflect different factors such as well-being, fairness and equality and climate change. This is possibly the most radical, and controversial, aspect of the report, and includes actions such as amendments to Non Domestic Rates, the introduction of a digital tax on online shopping, establishing out of town car parking charges and putting in place a total moratorium on out-of-centre retail development. It is difficult to imagine that the Scottish Government will adopt all of these suggestions, but it is interesting that several of the actions lie outside of the planning realm within taxation and broader economic policy. Such a holistic approach is currently being advocated by many parties across the UK. Finally, the Group seeks funding for ‘demonstration projects’ in towns and town centres across the country. This could include housing sector incentivisation in town centres, digital skills development for businesses, strategic acquisitions, and action on climate change. Most of us with a vested interest in the success of our town centres would agree that any additional funding is to be welcomed at the present time, and the Scottish Government’s budget now includes over £80 million for projects to support community regeneration, town centres and ‘20 minute neighbourhoods’. We await the Scottish Government’s response to the Group’s recommendations with interest, but regardless, the report has hopefully already succeeded in emboldening and energising debate on town centre issues across the UK.   [1] https://twitter.com/AltusGroupUK/status/1359157110370664451 Image credit: Daniel0685 via Flickr 

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