A reflection on the prospect for UK high streets and town centres to find a new future in a post COVID-19 world: Part two: Public sector intervention?
Perhaps given this surfeit of earnest and well-intentioned scrutiny, there is a dawning realisation of the limitations of what intervention and planning can deliver. There are significant limits as to what can be achieved through planning and development control, in relation to the mix and diversity of the town centre offer. Land use planning, via town centre first policy, focussed on retailing in isolation, is largely irrelevant. Quite simply, you can’t buck the market and you can’t tell consumers how and where to shop.
There needs to be a stronger reason and purpose for visiting and spending time (and money) in a town or city centre, and increasingly politicians and central and local government are looking for quasi autonomous organisations, working with local stakeholders, to help manage changes to the structure and ‘offer’ of town and city centres.
What we do know is that approaches focused narrowly on land and property development have not been successful in improving town centre vitality and viability. Such direct interventions are often a nil sum game, with inevitable winners and losers, due to subtle shifting of footfall and prime pitch, from one part of the town centre to another, and wider displacement or pulling of trade from nearby retail centres.
The aforementioned report, by Wrigley and Brookes (2014), also proffered 4 ways in which social science research could add considerable value, by:
- Providing analytical insight to the marked variation in performance of town centres/high streets as they adjust
- Providing related insight into whether and how drivers of differential performance may have varied in scale and position in the retail hierarchy
- Providing a conceptual framework that helps make sense of complex variations in performance and of the longer-term evolving configurations of high streets
- Contributing theoretically informed, evidence based, insight to the development and implantation of policy.
At the time, Wrigley and Brookes’ thinking was framed around the economic fallout from the global financial crisis; now it will be how town and city centres recover from the measures implemented to halt the spread of CV-19. We need to understand why some high streets are better able to recover, to bounce back, and others to slide further into terminal decline. Useful insight can be gained from a study of how some of the key drivers, such as the position of a retail centre in the retail hierarchy, its role, size, mix, diversity, vacancy, and physical configuration influence resilience. This is where benchmarking can come in useful and, in this respect, there is no need to reinvent the wheel.