In 2023, with a 30-year career at Leslie Jones, I am captivated by the challenges confronting the UK’s high streets and shopping places due to ongoing systemic changes in the retail industry.
The situation appears polarised, with robust retail destinations thriving while secondary and tertiary assets continue to struggle. While my focus remains on enhancing primary destinations, I am particularly interested in revitalising the more challenged areas.
I firmly believe that partnerships between the public and private sectors, along with an expanded role for Homes England and the government’s Levelling Up Fund, can transform the UK’s town centres.
However, looking back to the 1990s, when I started in retail at Fitch, I recall a time when retail design felt vibrant, and physical retail served as a regenerative force. We worked on the likes of Topshop, Topman, Debenhams and BHS, all now vanished from the high street.
Over time, economic shifts, including the recession of ‘91 and the financial crash of 2008, have impacted the industry. But these did not dent the appetite for growth. Leslie Jones continued to deliver large scale schemes such as Friars Walk in Newport, Old Market in Hereford and Trinity Square in Wakefield.
Fuelled by an era of ultra-low interest rates, it was the systemic change in retail and the rise of the internet that finally led to challenging times for retail property.
Now, I am re-energized by the role retail destinations and high streets play in bringing people together. E-commerce lacks the vibrancy of physical retail, necessitating vibrant uses in town centres to reunite communities. E-retailing is a soulless place after all. An overabundance of space in high streets and shopping centres poses a significant challenge, however. Repurposing these spaces becomes a critical task, but it requires careful consideration based on location, financial viability and available support.
The big challenge now is what we do? What is the use of those buildings moving forward, how do you repurpose them? How do you approach a scheme in the Northwest, for instance Barrow-in-Furness, compared to more affluent areas such as Epsom? What uses are financially viable and what support is out there to bridge the gap where appraisals just don’t work?
Certainly, there is a desire to start the journey in changing the direction of travel. Our recent significant planning approval for the St Enoch shopping centre in Glasgow is a point in case where an alternative open street scheme has been consented bringing the opportunity to stitch this city quarter back into the urban grain whilst offering new office, hotel, residential and of course retail and leisure uses.
Addressing this challenge calls for strong partnerships between local authorities and the private sector in struggling areas. A place-led, nuanced and research-led approach is necessary to understand the unique characteristics of each town and garner community support.
Emphasising independent businesses can complement the core offerings in town centres. Smaller operators have an opportunity to return to vacated spaces as attitudes toward covenants change, with landlords recognising the value of independent businesses.
There is, I believe, a faith being reinstated in retail as a regenerative tool.
Our projects with GCW are relevant where we are working together in Romford, Epsom and Enfield to support our clients in changing the fortunes of these town centres.
Each requires a separate approach, a keen understanding of each place, its communities, and the customers it will serve. We, like GCW, have to get under the skin of a destination, for instance at Redhill where we are jointly advising the council on their residential led mixed-use development, bringing dining, retail and leisure to the town.
The approach is no different in the prime retail centres.
With Leslie Jones working across The Metrocentre, Lakeside, Atria Watford among other prime schemes we see a bold mix of uses, with retailers upscaling their space and amplification of leisure and dining as well as the introduction of alternative uses such as healthcare, diagnostics and dentistry.
Funding from initiatives like the Levelling Up Fund can play a vital role in supporting areas lacking investment. The concept of 15-minute cities, which encourages accessibility to essential services within a short walk or bike ride, is also crucial for promoting vibrant town centres.
The introduction of Class E planning offers flexibility in response to changing needs, but planning remains one of the greatest challenges facing our industry, with political agendas often overriding policy and lack of resource hampering what needs to be a far more certain process.
Nonetheless, the key lies in increasing the scale and reach of government investment.
The evolving remit of Homes England, which now encompasses mixed-use redevelopment, is on the horizon and an important contributor to unlocking town centre growth. This potential can lead to transformative mixed-use developments, incorporating living spaces, work areas, healthcare and recreation alongside new formatted retail and leisure space.
Such developments will enable the flow of regenerative funds back into town centres, fostering a dance between the public and private sectors. The right support from both sides will bring about a rebalance, capitalising on shifts in consumer behaviour and work patterns. Evolving town centres is not a sprint but a journey requiring time, energy and passion.
I am hopeful that we are on the right track to revitalize our town centres and shopping destinations to create thriving hubs once again.