Our town centres are failing across the UK and beyond. We know this instinctively by the number of empty units, spaces above shops and gridlocked traffic. Our 20th century environments have long since failed to respond to, and are undermining, our 21st century needs and lifestyles.
We know it factually too: According to the Grimsey Review (2), released in July this year to stimulate debate and action as a response to town centre decline, the UK has witnessed the failure of on average 39 major retail companies every year from 2008-2017. This has resulted in the loss of over 2,700 stores and 27,000 jobs per annum, and over 14,000 units have stood empty for over three years. The steady decline in high street retail activity since the economic crash ten years ago shows little sign of reversing, and the impression that we have reached “peak high street” is hard to counter.
Selling off the family silver
In parallel with this, a growing number of local authority assets (parks, gardens, buildings and a mish-mash of forgotten spaces) are being disposed of in a bid to balance the books after a decade of ever-tightening austerity. Many of these are in town and city centres. A recent Freedom of Information trawl by community regeneration membership body Locality found that on average over 4,100 local authority assets per year were disposed of from 2012- 2017. It was estimated that a further 7,250 assets owned by local authorities alone are set for disposal over the next five years (Source: Locality “The Great British Sell-off” 2018). This is aside from any disposals by other public sector bodies such as the NHS, Ministry of Defence, Network Rail, the Post Office and others.
These are spaces communities could use for much needed local services while taking the financial pressures off the public sector. The “Save our Spaces” campaign set up earlier this year by Locality is a great starting point for local groups who want to keep these precious assets for the good of the community.
More “stuff” or a circular economy?
Our town centres have become out of step with our needs: The growth of online shopping has made much of the traditional retail-led high streets also-rans in the race for retail spending. No matter how unfettered economic growth may become, there is surely a limit to the amount of “stuff” we need to consume. We need to reinvent our town centres with an imaginative and “circular” approach. We should use these important places to share goods, time, ideas and activities and feed our sense of community: Why can’t an empty department store become a gymnasium, arts centre and community café? Or a smaller shop a repair café? Why not turn empty offices into cheap workspace for start-ups? Or create community housing in multi-story shops? We need to acknowledge and work with our rich built and cultural heritage, creating distinctive places where people want to spend time and where local needs are met. We need to ensure places link together better, encouraging more cycling and walking and restricting car use. We know we’ve let things slide, and that we deserve better.
Be brave and innovate
To achieve this, though, we need to be imaginative and innovative: With resources (time, people, money, skills); With finance (progressive taxation, more flexible planning system, smart investment, smart technology and management); And with national and local leadership (making the most of participatory and political powers, encouraging fresh business ideas).
Above all, we need the courage and vision to turn our town and city centres into places we want and need. It takes guts, time and tenacity but, as some towns have already found, such courage and leadership pays dividends, reviving dead spaces and creating the beating hearts our communities so desperately need.
(Tune into 2 Rivers Radio York to hear their recent panel discussion on town and city centre regeneration – featuring our own Imelda Havers! – here.)