A new report demonstrates that embracing historic character makes for a popular high street, Tim Brennan, our Senior Regeneration Advisor, discusses how councils can identify and embrace historic character to sensitively sow the seeds of a successful development scheme.
Almost everyone will be familiar with the issues currently facing retailers and those involved in managing our high streets – the success of out of town shopping and the growth of online retailing has had very obvious effects on the health of many town and city centres. Add in the effects of the recession and the financial pressures on local authorities and we have a situation where many high streets are characterised by both a lack of shoppers and increasing numbers of vacant shops.
The debate about how to address these issues has become increasingly high profile in recent months, with various initiatives including the efforts of retail guru Mary Portas making the headlines.
English Heritage is often involved in offering planning advice to local authorities and others in relation to proposed or new developments in historic town centres and high streets. But while we have expertise in helping make sure that local heritage plays a part in creating successful places, we are clearly not retail experts. Which is why we commissioned some research to help us better understand what kind of implications current retail and town centre trends have in store for historic towns and high streets.
The final report, The Changing Face of the High Street: Decline and Revival, makes interesting reading. It makes clear that the challenges are not to be underestimated, and that in all probability we are going through a period of permanent structural change to the retail sector. What this means is that the raison d’etre of town centres and high streets can no longer simply be about shopping. If we want them to thrive, then we are all going to have to be flexible and think creatively about the kind of environment that will attract people and persuade them to spend time there.
However, as the title of the report suggests, we think there are some grounds for optimism as we look to the future. Certainly, recent figures suggest that footfall on the high street is increasing (although that might be down to the recently improved weather!) and retailers themselves appear to be slightly more confident about the future.
But our research and analysis of a series of particular locations has also identified a number of interesting trends emerging. For example, older, historic buildings in the streets around the Princesshay retail development in Exeter have attracted independent retailers so ensuring the area has developed a ‘niche’ offer that complements the mainstream offer within the shopping centre. Similarly, the sensitive design of the Liverpool One centre has demonstrated how large scale retail development can integrate with even the most significant of heritage environments.
It is also now clear that shoppers increasingly expect more of an experience from their high streets and town centres, particularly in terms of a greater leisure offer than previously. Often historic buildings are well suited to this kind of use, and can help retain a distinctive and characterful local environment.
Similarly, we have come across a number of places where small-scale, relatively modest initiatives on the local historic environment have played an important part in creating confidence. This can be a long process, but often the first steps are critical – success stories such as Whitstable or Paignton are the result of a number of overlapping yet separate projects that have ultimately over-achieved.
We are very conscious that not every shopping destination possesses the kind of historic environment to be found in places such as Chester or Canterbury. So we would not argue that heritage is the answer to all the problems on the high street. But in looking for ways to revive our high streets and town centres (or even perhaps gain a competitive advantage in the search for shoppers) we think it could offer opportunities to local authorities and others involved. Our hope is that the report offers some useful advice in how to adapt our high streets and town centres to ensure they are fit for the future.