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Simon Turton of Opera Public Relations considers how re-imagined town centres could help to provide much-needed housing and would create reinvigorated urban spaces that are once again a pleasure to visit.

 


 

When my parents married in the early 1960s just about everything they needed — from sardines to screwdrivers and from lightbulbs to LPs — were available on the high street.

You could buy certain items by mail order, but the vast majority of purchases involved getting to a shop, either by walking or taking the bus. In the town where my parents lived most of the shops they visited were small independents, except for the likes of Woolworths and Boots, which were joined in the mid-late 1970s by supermarkets — although most people’s shopping trips were still limited by the strength of their arms.

Throughout the 70s car ownership rapidly expanded and significantly increased the mobility of the population. It wasn’t long before the out-of-town retail developments started to emerge, which the new car-owning consumer started visiting in ever greater numbers.

No longer were shoppers limited by what they could carry home — everything went in the boot — and by being able to buy all the groceries for the week, the need for daily shopping on the high street started to decline. Social change was also driving our shopping habits. More and more married women were either staying on at work or returning to work having had children, and were increasingly rejecting the role of the housewife.

With men and women both working, the only time for shopping was the weekend, which increasingly involved a drive to an out-of-town retail centre. Today, there are many shopping centres across the UK, with the top 40 offering more than 70,000sq m of retail space and each one with hundreds of free parking spaces.

During the last 25 years not only have shopping centres increased in size, they have incorporated more and more leisure facilities; today, most shopping malls incorporate food courts, restaurants, cinemas, bowling alleys and other leisure attractions. Back on the high street, we have a picture that our parents and grandparents would scarcely recognise.

Whilst the retail scene varies from town to town, in general there has been a proliferation of charity shops, coffee and fast food chains, mobile phone retailers and discount stores. In some towns WH Smith and Marks and Spencer maintain a presence, but it can only be a matter of time before such national retailers start to pull the plug from all but the most profitable stores in city centres and shopping malls.

But, the high street is not only under threat from the out-of-town centres, online shopping has been snapping at the heals of the long-established retailers. With companies such as Amazon continuing to expand their range of products and services, even those retailers who are still trading well cannot afford to rest on their laurels.

So, what can be done with the town centres across the country that are starting to resemble abandoned gold rush towns of the old wild west? A new vision is needed for the high street, which acknowledges that they have changed for ever. Local authorities should start to encourage people to move back to the centre of towns by allowing redundant commercial buildings and the empty space above the high street retailers to be converted into apartments, which could start to alleviate local housing crises.

However, if anyone is tempted to investigate these options, they mustn’t underestimate the amount of red tape that needs to be cut through. There are not only planning issues to consider, but also listed building consent, building regulations, the community infrastructure levy and fire regulations, to name just a few.

With people returning to live in the centre of towns, there would be a demand for the convenience shops and additional services, which would remain open for longer to serve the new residents; the mobile phone and discount retailers might disappear, to be replaced by a wider range of restaurants and bars, set in landscaped, car-free streets.

Not every town centre or high street would work as a modern day village green, but given the creativity of British architects and entrepreneurial drive of property developers, I would like to think that there could be a real renaissance of our town centres, which are re-invented as thriving urban spaces that no longer fall silent once the charity shops have locked up for the day.

 

Opera Public Relations is a full service PR and marketing communications consultancy, working with a wide range of clients around the UK. For more information visit their website.