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The future of the high street in the Midlands

Regular news of store and restaurant closures such as House of Fraser, Poundworld, Maplin, Toys R Us, BHS, Byron and Gaucho/Cau provides clear evidence that there is a fundamental shift occurring on our high streets and within town centres.

There are also suggestions in the press that Debenhams could be the next casualty following previous profit warnings and job losses.

Gone are the days of concerns over ‘clone towns’ with homogenous shops and outlets throughout cities and market towns. What we are now concerned about is keeping the units occupied and the traditional high street alive.

The idea that retail ‘anchors’, be it department stores or supermarkets, could guarantee to help kick-start town centre regeneration also appears to be disappearing fast. With the anchors closing, the resulting decline in footfall and dwell time must be a real concern for smaller retailers.

In the West Midlands we saw Sainsbury’s transform Dorridge not so long ago, but since then both Sainsbury’s and Tesco have been rationalising their portfolios (for example in and around Birmingham’s suburban centres including Stirchley, Erdington and Hamstead). More recently there have been high-profile cancellations or rethinks on strategic schemes such as Friarsgate in Lichfield and the £300m Coventry South Shopping Centre development. These changes are replicated in the East Midlands, with it being reported by the Nottingham Post that Waitrose is now pulling out of the Wheatcroft Island site in Edwalton, Nottingham.

The 2018 follow up to the original Grimsey Review on reshaping town centres suggests a raft of recommendations to help our centres and shops compete with the continued rise of online retailing. Looking further afield, Which magazine recently reported that Amazon Go and Hema (part of Chinese group AliBaba) are trialling ‘checkout-less’ shops where the products you take from the store are automatically charged to your online account. These, along with ‘showroom’ and concept stores where you can ‘try before you buy’, may be on our Midlands high streets in the near future.

Turley’s Birmingham office is assisting a number of clients to reorganise and redevelop their portfolios of town centre properties throughout the Midlands. We are acting on high-profile sites in Birmingham City Centre to replace outmoded retail space with new mixed-use offers, to help enliven areas through new uses including hotels, residential, office and rationalised retail and commercial space. This includes co-working space to provide opportunities for smaller businesses and start-up companies to bring people into sites and utilise facilities.

We are helping to bring forward the extension and redevelopment of Castle Quay Shopping Centre in Banbury for a hotel and leisure-based scheme, with a new canalside food and beverage offer. We are also working to secure improvements to existing retail units in the centres of both Kidderminster and Stratford-upon-Avon.

Further afield in Irlam, Greater Manchester, The Guardian recently reported how the town’s high street has no empty shops thanks to a £23 million investment and low rents from a local philanthropist. In the Midlands, local authorities are looking to step in to help deliver their strategic city/town centre retail sites, with Broadmarsh in Nottingham and Gungate in Tamworth being two of the most recent examples.

Overall, both locally and nationally, the negatives appear to be outweighing the positives. Cushman & Wakefield’s recent analysis on the high street in 'UK High Streets: Dead or Alive?' suggests negative rental growth in both the East (-30%) and West (-36%) Midlands, with a unit vacancy rate between 11% and 14% for each respective region.1 

So what can be done?

Central Government has already ‘tinkered’ with the planning system through amendments to the General Permitted Development Order (GPDO) by allowing offices, retail units and other town centre uses such as amusement arcades  to be converted into dwellings, but these are often heavily caveated and resisted by councils in practice.

The 2018 Grimsey Review outlines a number of recommendations, including further changes to the planning system, specifically the GPDO, along with reduced business rates and greater town centre governance and management. In tandem with these recommendations there needs to be an acceptance from policymakers that there is too much traditional retail space.

Anecdotally, we have found some local authority planners reticent to embrace the necessity for flexibility and change. Existing centres and primary shopping areas are seen as ‘sacrosanct’ for retail. Local policies need to be updated (and quickly) to encourage new uses, giving people more reasons to come to a centre other than shops.

It is accepted that not all places in the Midlands can draw the level of footfall to their centres compared to cities such as Birmingham and Nottingham. However, as planners we need to think about the uniqueness and strengths of a place. What is special and how can it be made more so to draw people in and make them want to stay longer? Tourism or leisure attractions, reviving traditional industries, built heritage and regional crafts all offer clues for opportunities to be exploited.

Another point for consideration is the biggest landlord and landowner in the area. Unlike Irlam with a local benefactor, quite often the local authority is one of the largest landlords in a town and so has a vested interest in a town centre. Expect to see more direct involvement, innovation and intervention of councils as investors. This could encourage, for example, independent shops and restaurants and new community uses.

We await with interest the Government’s Parliamentary Inquiry into 'High streets and town centres in 2030' to see if the fundamental changes to retailing and our high streets have been recognised by Central Government and how determined  politicians are to secure the future of town and city centres.

Turley can provide advice and expertise in all these matters, with specialist teams in planning, retail, heritage, strategic communications, viability and economics regularly working together. Our advice from the Birmingham office is bespoke to the Midlands market. This delivers results on the ground and unlocks development sites by working in partnership with stakeholders and local planning authority officers.

If you would like more information or a chat about how Turley can help, please contact Neal Allcock or Mat Jones.

17 September 2018

1Cushman and Wakefield - UK High Streets: Dead or Alive

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