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High street to hell

Internet retail will only kill off town centres if we let it happen, says regeneration consultant Julian Dobson.

Julian Dobson, Director, Urban Pollinators
20 September 2018

Internet retail will only kill off town centres if we let it happen, says regeneration consultant Julian Dobson.

Much of the debate around the future of the UK high street is framed by a simplistic view that what has gone wrong is the loss of a lot of retail activities. That is a misreading of the problem. The challenge is not just that some forms of retail are disappearing; the issue is the decades-long failure of policy and practice that has led to town centres being thought of primarily as shopping areas. Council masterplans have been heavily focused on retail as a way to compete with out-of-town sites and, as a result, town centres have become overly fixated on consumption.

Partnerships with shopping mall operators have led to a concentration of ownership that allows centres to be bought and sold as assets by interests that are not connected with the character of, or invested in the future of, particular localities.

Meanwhile town centres have ceased to be thought of primarily as social centres. The decline of their civic functions has been exacerbated by public policy, particularly since the onset of austerity.

We need to recognise that the prime functions of place are for living, socialising and working, and that employment and housing uses are equally as important as retail uses. The spaces between buildings are also significant. Parks and open spaces can create a public realm where people want to be.

Who owns town centre property?

There is also the question of who owns town centre property. The in-town mall approach leads to concentrated ownership and limited access for the kinds of community and arts organisation that pursue marginal activities and need low-cost accommodation. It is also very difficult to get a start-up business into a mall. Therefore, in order to encourage diversity of uses, a significant proportion of landmark town centre property must move into the hands of community-based organisations or community interest companies.

The business improvement district model is a good way of getting retailers and other users of high street property together to think about the common interests of a place and gather a pot of money for improvements. However, we need to convene the community so that the range of stakeholders for that kind of venture is much wider. We could create community improvement districts so that businesses, landlords and the public are able to act together to improve their town centres.

There are two simple things that government can do to help. It can make business rates more equitable so they reflect the added value created – at the moment town centre retailers are at a disadvantage to online retailers, who only pay business rates for one or two warehouses. There is also an urgent need to adjust the distribution of resources between areas of government. Local authorities have been unfairly singled out for cuts, which has had a direct impact on the quality of place that people experience.

There is a huge amount of knowledge in the property industry, and if professionals can think of that as a resource for the public benefit and not just for that of their clients, they can help to promote a functioning mix of public, private and community uses. I would also like to see a deeper understanding of the value created by good public spaces. Property professionals can struggle to see beyond the walls of buildings. They need to think outside the box.

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