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What’s in store for the future of town centres?

With a backdrop of numerous store closure announcements, the plight of retail and town centres is one of the hottest topics in the media at the moment.

Turley attended the Retail & Leisure Trends Summit hosted by the Local Data Company (LDC) to hear what other industry experts[1] are saying about the future of town centres, retail and leisure. A clear message was that it is not all the fault of the internet (or Brexit). These have just accelerated the changes that were happening anyway.

However, what we are witnessing is an unparalleled change in consumer habits and the reasons we go to town centres. Some big questions for the future of town centres need to be answered – and quickly.

What needs to change?

What is clear is that the High Street must evolve. The Summit gave a real insight into how technology could have a big role to play in supporting the trend and customer demand for experiential retailing.

A general trend – not just common to millennials – is that people are spending more on experiences and less on material goods, as evidenced in rising gym memberships and retail subscriptions. It is also clear that people are eating out far more than they did 10 years ago.

This needs to be reflected in how the High Street should adapt. The use of artificial intelligence and virtual reality in combination with physical space to enhance and personalise the retail customer experience, particularly in relation to comparison retail (especially clothing) is seen as a key response required.

A point made by several speakers is that the growing use of technology in retailing is not necessarily a threat to the High Street. Bricks and mortar retailers must embrace it, in a joined up way and with on-line/in-store/supply chain teams working together to drive efficiencies, reduce costs and improve service.

What are the opportunities?

The revolutionary changes and challenges for retail at present are unprecedented. With potential falls in retail rents arising from increasing vacant stock, and no sign of support from the Government (e.g. relaxing business rates) landlords have very good reason to be concerned. But with revolution does come opportunity. For example, in terms of thinking about how the buildings previously occupied by retail can be re-used or redeveloped for new uses.

Another concern is that no-one really seems to be tackling the issue of what to do with the quantum of empty space growing in town centres. Neither have they fully expressed the critical role of the public realm, places and spaces between the buildings as a core ingredient to the success of struggling town centres.

Turley is already representing a number of clients within sites in town centre locations who are looking to redevelop or repurpose existing underutilised retail space for new uses. These new developments aim to challenge the retail monoculture created through the Local Plan process which will help to sustain and enliven our existing centres.

Local Plan preparation is too slow to adapt to the speed of change in retailing and the High Street. Many policies still resist loss of A1 and are stifling the innovation to other active uses that drive footfall. Retail-led redevelopment is not the regeneration boon it was 10-15 years ago and Local Planning Authorities need to embrace other redevelopment opportunities on their strategic town centre sites.

If decision-makers are prepared to be flexible there is now an opportunity to enable centres to support a greater diversity of uses – including workshops, small-scale manufacturing and maker-spaces, studios and last-mile logistics. We might even see a return to more employment-focused mixed-use quarters close to the heart of larger towns and cities which first helped our towns and cities grow.

Catering for ‘live-work-play’ alongside technology-enabled shopping in great urban places perhaps sums up the diversified role that centres require to survive. This also needs to be throughout the day, evening and night, as people work ever more flexibly. There is cause for concern, but smart thinking, innovation and a rapid response allied to a holistic approach can take our town centres forward as places where people want to live, spend time and for new business to invest.

If you have any queries about the future of town centres, please contact Paul Keywood or David Wetherill

5 July 2018

[1] The 17th LDC Retail & Leisure Summit took place on 4 June (http://www.localdatacompany.com/) hosted by BDO LLP. Some information in the article is drawn from the presentations, including by Sophie Michael, Head of Retail at BDO LLP, Lucy Stainton at LDC, Sophia Dempsey of Springwise, Neil Sebba at Tossed and Darren Williams of DW Exec Consulting.

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