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First steps: what’s the key for town centres?

Jay Skinner looks at the challenge of transforming town-centre retail.

The continued decline of the UK’s high streets has been well documented in recent years. Changing shopping preferences, wider economic trends and general uncertainty in the markets have all played a part.

With town centre retail vacancy rates at about 12% and closures likely to increase, we don’t need statistics to tell us that the strong will get stronger (prime Edinburgh / Glasgow / modern format shopping centres). For the weak, it could be challenging.

As well as encouraging consumer spending, town centres and high streets have to be attractive places. They are already complex micro-markets with a web of stakeholders including end users (the public), tenants (property demand), private landlords (property supply) and local authorities (the stimulator). Historically, from a planning perspective, local authorities sought to protect the vitality of core retail areas. This is often done by way of policies, guidance and the use of the ‘sequential test’ and retail impact assessments in considering planning applications.

However, unsurprisingly, the policies could feel out of date, and retrospectively quite ironic, for example: “Ensure a new food-store or retail park is as close to the town centre as possible, but with free parking. At the same time make the core high street inaccessible through parking restrictions.”  So, the new stock is not geographically separated, but equally not integrated into the town centre: it makes it easy for the new development to be the preferred (and more convenient) consumer choice, while remaining completely familiar.

The success and impact of Amazon is quite unbelievable and, combined with failures of the built environment, action is now required.  In a drive to reinvigorate the UK’s high streets, many local authorities are actively encouraging a greater mix of land uses in town centres that are complementary to their traditional shopping function.

The first initiatives were leisure and entertainment, but now there has been a push to introduce new residential development into town centres in an effort to increase footfall and boost ailing night-time economies.

At Galbraith, we are engaged with all stakeholders of this debate, and in terms of adopting a pragmatic approach, innovation is key. We note that concepts are often presented, but speed of implementation has to improve. Planning legislation takes time to change, but there is a greater degree of flexibility in the system at a local level now.


For the future, we anticipate: a revival of mixed use development to include residential; increased joint ventures between stakeholders to include local authorities; and improved accessibility, including traditional car parking (countered by reduced carbon emissions).