Not long-ago government was criticised for identifying good days to bury bad news. Their announcement on Boxing Day about the Future High Streets Fund seems to have turned that mantra on its head. Of the £1b promised in 2018, approximately 1/3 has now been allocated to 15 towns in full, whilst 2/3 is provisionally allocated to a further 57, requiring Councils to jump through some more hoops to satisfy central government. Some critics will observe that the combined sum of £831m falls short of the original target. True, but the money is now at least starting to flow.
Cash is King
However important money is it is only one part of a much bigger package to bring about change to our town centres. Without ambition, a clear vision, unwavering commitment, and real expertise, even an endless supply of cash will be quickly squandered. To that extent government is right to forensically consider each authorities’ bid and push back if questions remain unanswered.
The soundbites from government about ‘levelling up’ or ‘re-energising & transforming’ our town centres don’t do justice to the detailed work required to bring about effective change and long-term improvement; these issues are complex. If you have already looked at the list of towns bidding to receive help from FHSF there are some surprising winners. Considering the relative success of a town is highly subjective, but few would think the likes of Leamington Spa, Taunton or Worcester need a handout, whilst Birkenhead, Stretford and Walsall all seem more obvious and deserving candidates. But that is not the point; demonstrating the scale of the positive change brought about by specific initiatives is key to this procurement process.
Ambition, Strategy, Commitment
We can all identify an attractive, thriving town when we visit one. Understanding the constituent parts that make it so is more difficult. Wide ranging shortcomings need diverse solutions, but realistically you can’t fix everything in one go. All stakeholders, public or private, need help from those able to draw on experiences from a wide spectrum. Prioritising quick wins is good for headlines and votes, but real long-term change comes about by addressing inherent underlying issues. Many have been bubbling away under the surface, well before anyone realised that shopping would, for many towns, cease to be the primary reason to visit.
You only have to look at KPMG’s recent report on how Covid will affect town centres, to see that the implications are wide reaching. They estimate high streets could lose between 20-40% of its shopping offer because of changes in consumer behaviour, potentially raising unemployment by up to 5% along the way. This could easily fuel socio-economic decline if allowed to take hold. The longer-term implications for towns that do not have a plan to grapple the issues now will be far more severe.
The Time is Now
Other research by Revo & LSH estimate that town centre regeneration will be driven by public and private sector initiatives, perhaps to the tune of 70:30. Much of this is likely to be via collaborative joint ventures, pulling together the best of one another’s expertise and resources.
The high street will have to reinvent itself to enhance the vibrancy of many towns. There needs to be greater provision of cultural & recreational facilities, hospitality, greenspaces, healthcare, and other community functions to support a growing population living in the town centre. These will need to be complimented by re-imagined workspaces that cater for the changing dynamics of the local workforce, many of whom will want to work near to home, as opposed to, at home, or commute to a central office.
Physical shopping will endure - doing it differently is inevitable. This change is not all about decline and it is not just government or big business that can influence the future. We are already seeing positive outcomes, where consumers are embracing the opportunity to ‘shop local’. There is greater emphasis on convenience and a growing desire to support local producers and, perhaps subconsciously, a realisation that if we want our town centres to survive & thrive, we all need to fall in love with them again. Similarly, those locations that have well established attributes beyond shopping, typically tourism and cultural landmarks, will fare better over the coming years.
It is the middle ground where we should be most concerned. For these towns, where their characteristics are less remarkable, but their high streets have grown fat on bland consumerism, the challenges are numerous and varied. Their struggle is not defined by north, south, rich or poor and this explains why the towns receiving help are so diverse. Given the government’s £1b promise was made pre-covid, commentators should not be asking why has only £831m been allocated? Surely the question is; how much more will the government pledge to save our communities given the pandemic’s destruction of our high streets.