A new story, a new chapter for our town centres

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A new story, a new chapter for our town centres


The figures tell a powerful story. The Centre for Retail Research estimates there are around 50,000 fewer shops on our high streets than just over a decade ago.

No wonder so many town centres are struggling to adjust; to find a new future.

But in our work around the country we see rich opportunity in our changing town centres, places doing things differently, people ready to embrace change – to establish a new story and purpose for their place.

There are new funding pots aimed at supporting the revival of town centres, such as the Towns Fund and Future High Street Fund, but throwing money at the challenge will amount to nothing if you can’t express what the place is trying to be, what is its potential?

It’s about understanding what the wider place has to offer and what’s the role of the town centre within that? What’s its narrative? What makes it distinctive? You have to get under the skin of a place to do that.

In St Helens, we helped the town’s leaders to re-imagine the town centre’s reason for being as part of the new story we developed for the place. This put a new focus on St Helens as a “culturally centred” place, bringing together the town’s strong cultural assets and using events and local creative talent to bring new energy and appeal to the town centre.

In Radcliffe, one of Greater Manchester’s most deprived areas, the town centre had fallen into apparently irreversible decline. That was until a volunteer-led campaign transformed outdated Radcliffe Market Hall into a thriving food hall and performance and events space, run by a “community benefit society”.

The Market Hall becoming the hub and heart of Radcliffe

 

The revival reflected a key theme of the place story we helped to create. It emphasised the need to animate the town centre as Radcliffe’s “hub and heart”. The success has become a beacon of hope, leading to the creation of a regeneration group to breathe new life into the town centre.

In Doncaster, the place story emphasised the need for vibrancy and a reason to come together in the town centre, inspiring the transformation of the historic Wool Market into a fabulous place to shop, eat, drink and relax. This is one of many initiatives ensuring that Doncaster sets a city standard and develops as a leisure destination.

These case studies of re-invention demonstrate the need to look at our town centres very differently; to move past the absolute focus on retail. We need to go back to the future, to recall a time before retail ruled; a time when people lived, worked, came together and spent leisure time in our town and city centres.

While the retail landscape is disrupted, other trends, especially localism, work in favour of our new town centres. People want to live and work locally, with a lifestyle that favours wellbeing and positive mental health.

Doncaster town centre gives the purpose & the environment for people to come together

 

With improved digital connectivity, many more people can work close to home and prefer to do so. So much better to work in your local town centre, surrounded by facilities and social spaces, and so much better for the environment too!

The high street isn’t dying and nor are our town centres. They’re evolving, as they always have.

Repurposing our town centres means understanding what made the place, identifying its emotional heartbeat and establishing the elements of its DNA that can be developed to make the place vibrant once again.

Critical to our approach is working with partners to unearth the place stories that bring people together and create collaborative action.

To not just survive, but thrive, every place has to develop a shared view of what it wants to be. By creating a fresh, authentic and compelling place story, we can open up a new chapter for our town centres.

John Till, Director