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August 2022
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New research on strategies for town centres renaissance unveiled by Institute of Economic Development and Lichfields

Nigel Wilcock

A strong independent retail offer, a year-round programme of cultural events and family-friendly activities are the key strategies for underpinning successful town centres of the future, according to a new survey published by the Institute of Economic Development (IED) and Lichfields planning and development consultancy.

Whilst 92% of economic development and regeneration professionals surveyed confirmed that town centre vacancy rates have increased in the past five years – with 71% reporting that growth in online retail has had “significant influence” – a higher than expected 49% say they are “positive” or “very positive” about the prospects of town centres strengthening their position/offer. Within this, private sector consultancy respondents (67%) are more optimistic about the future than local authority officers (47%).

To drive footfall in town centres, respondents to this survey reported that leisure and culture (48%), food and beverage (41%) and independent retail (35%) are “very important” – and to repurpose vacant space it was independent retail (34%), leisure and culture (34%) and residential (28%) carrying the highest overall weighting.

However, when asked about underpinning strategies for supporting successful town centres of the future, a strong independent retail offer (52%), a year-round programme of cultural events (48%) and family-friendly activities (45%) are perceived to be “very important”. Also scoring highly as weighted averages are improvements to the built environment and public realm, and broader economic development interventions to raise the prosperity of the local area.

In contrast, respondents are less convinced about the effectiveness of current interventions in positioning town centres for success in the future. Whilst the majority rated business support to grow independent retail/food and drink offer as “very effective” (32%), only 13% said the same about business improvement districts and 17% about the various planning levers available to local areas. Enterprise arcades, with easy in/easy out terms, low rents/rates and business support, featured more prominently as a weighted average.

Overall, 44% believe changes in Permitted Development Rights (PDR) will be “very effective or effective” in increasing town centre residential development. A further 30% feel that the introduction of Class E will be “very effective or effective” in promoting a town centre renaissance. A similar proportion, 29%, thought that PDR would have the same impact.

Ross Lillico, Economics Director at Lichfields, said: “The impact of Covid-19 on town centres has obviously caught the headlines, but this has simply accelerated longer-term shifts in the way people use and interact with town centres. Both the Future High Streets Fund and the Towns Fund recognise that financial support is needed to deliver positive change by ensuring a greater diversity of uses and repurposing vacant spaces. The value of this survey is it provides on-the-ground intelligence from economic development and regeneration professionals on key strategies for underpinning successful town centres of the future. It suggests that practitioners do not consider some of the tools and levers available to them to be effective as policy-makers might have hoped. That said, there is clearly a sense of positivity in the survey responses regarding the future outlook.”

Nigel Wilcock, Executive Director of the IED, added: “This research has identified some clear priorities for the future of town centres and approaches to driving footfall, repurposing vacant space and overall place management. We have already run successful CPD sessions on the future of town centres with Lichfields which explored some of the issues and opportunities facing town centres as the economy emerges from the aftermath of Covid-19 and examined the tools available to local authorities to support their evolution. Developing the right interventions and approaches to delivering change were part of that programme, and with the knowledge we now have from this survey we will feed this into our next round of professional development activities.”

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