Repurposing our town and city centres

Written by Stephen Bell, Senior Director, Head of Planning North - Turley

Turley will be once again supporting the Manchester Partnership at MIPIM and we’re looking forward to another productive week of forming new and developing existing relationships across the northern cities.

No doubt one of the most common topics of conversation will be around the challenges being faced by the retail sector and the related challenges (and opportunities) this presents for our city and town centres.

You can look at any centre across the north and the wider country and see they are having to evolve. Changing consumer behaviour, reduced footfall, and the decline of major high-street retailers are all contributing to this evolution.

While these factors are disrupting the largest users of traditional “bricks and mortar” retail space it needn’t represent the death knell for the high street.

Research by Turley highlights that in 2017 £178 billion of in-store non-food transactions were completed – an average of £488 million a day. This is significantly more than the value of online sales for non-food retail, which totalled £45 billion at an average of £123 million a day, and the figures for in-store spending are projected to increase to £227 billion by 2026. Many (of the more successful and proactive) retailers are actually investing in-store sales as well as on-line.

While these figures show that retail still has a valuable role to play in the high street of the future, we can expect its footprint to be notably smaller than it has been historically. This trend presents an opportunity to reimagine and repurpose our high streets.

It has been estimated that there is approximately 8 million sq m of vacant space in town and city centres across the country. The repurposing of this space could contribute to the creation of successful mixed-use centres that will have the potential to generate many benefits for society and make those centres more liveable. This could be delivered through a greater diversity of commercial and residential uses (including innovative co-working and co-living products), more emphasis on densification of development around transport hubs and a reinvention of retailer presence.

This re-purposing provides the opportunity for towns and cities to deliver and expand the “experiences” that they offer to residents and visitors. In particular, it could encourage greater programmes of events, inventive uses of space (meanwhile uses) and provide opportunity for the arts and cultural sectors to flourish. From a northern perspective the strength and quality of these experiences will become increasingly important in retaining and attracting the best talent, which will in turn boost the competitiveness of the northern regions.

The story of our town and city centres is one of continuous evolution. Reports of the “death” of the high street are an exaggeration. The opportunity exists to take advantage of a decline in the retail sector to re-purpose and revitalise our town and city centres, and in turn convey greater benefits. We look forward to continuing this conversation in Cannes and thinking positively about what our centres can become.