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The High Street Report: Everything we wished for this Christmas?

Release of the Government-commissioned report on high streets today is a well-timed antidote to tidings which are anything but glad on the high street this Christmas.

The expert panel, chaired by Sir John Timpson, has arrived at some well founded recommendations but appears to have resorted to some gimmicks and it has not addressed fundamental planning and place making issues associated with creating successful mixed-use town centres.

Presents delivered

It is pleasing to see place based approaches given such prominence, as well as a recognition that no two towns are the same. The call for locally specific strategies, and Government playing an enabling role to remove obstacles to town centre regeneration, is eminently sensible.

We also support the evidence led approach of the panel, using survey based data which reveals what people want from their town centres and the experiences that they can deliver. This is about places which are inclusive, multi-generational and ultimately places that people want to be in.

The focus on our town centres as serving their surrounding catchments is also a helpful reminder that we should be focusing on whole places, rather than viewing our high streets in splendid isolation. Understanding the catchment, using hard data such as household expenditure and demographics, as well as softer measures (such as people’s satisfaction with place) are considered essential to devising appropriate, individual strategies for town centres. This is nothing new, however, to those who have been delivering town centre regeneration and developments successfully for many years.

Stocking fillers

There are some measures in the report which are more frivolous in our opinion.

The “National High Street Perfect Day” is one such measure. At best this will be a profile raising exercise, but in our view its inclusion is at the expense of some of the bigger issues at stake in terms of environmental quality in our town centres.

For example, we would have liked to see more consideration given to the longer-term stewardship of town centres and the public realm, which is often neglected in the face of the parlous state of local authority finances. So often, even when a great new public space or public realm has been invested in, the lack of long term stewardship actively detracts from place quality which in turn can harm perceptions of town centres.

Wishing for more  

The panel highlights that planning provides one of the key tools to enable local communities to shape and deliver the high street agenda. However, it resorts to generalities when it talks about “streamlining the planning process”. This is a missed opportunity in our view.

The panel could have explored and put forward a range of fresh ideas for the Government to consider, rather than just nodding towards the announcements made in the Budget. On our wish list of issues that could have featured would have been:

  • Blending uses successfully to create “good neighbours” – especially in the face proposed new permitted development (PD) rights allowing buildings to be demolished for residential development and the conversion of premises to alternative uses.
  • Ensuring that town centres contribute fully to addressing the housing crisis and the role of density in optimising contribution.
  • The need for community infrastructure to serve and sustain new residential populations in our town centres.
  • Dealing with the issue of viability of different uses in town centres.
  • The issue of employment land losses and how we can ensure that town centres (as highly accessible places) continue to act as loci for jobs.

The expert panel’s report is a welcome addition to thinking on the future of the high street with many good recommendations. On planning and place making matters, however, it has left us wishing for more this Christmas.

20 December 2018  

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