Back in January 2017 the House of Commons debated on the future of town centres and high streets. The LGA briefing at the time set out some of the challenges facing High Streets and town centres, stating,
The future looks bleak as retail spending on high streets continues to decline, leading to an over-supply of retail space. The impact of this plays out differently in each place, and local communities must have the tools and freedom to respond.
And, crucially, “Empowered local partnerships are crucial because, unlike shopping centres, the high street offer represents a complex set of interests. This is critical for the future of the high street as it is an offer that its competitors, like the internet and out of town shopping centres, struggle to match. Government should consider strengthening business improvement districts to develop this.”
Recently it published Revitalising town centres, described as a handbook for council leadership. This is a useful contribution to the debate, although it does say in the introduction that councils should be, “avoiding the traps of having a narrow focus on retail, one particular street or block or single issues such as parking, anti-social behaviour or business rates.
That’s all very well, but if you can’t solve these three basis factors then you really are in trouble. Although to be fair, it goes on the say that the, key to success is a strong evidence base, meaningful engagement with the town’s stakeholders and embracing new technology. I can’t argue with that!
The Checklist offers Success Factors built around six “Fs”:
- Forward Planning
While there is no radical thinking here, it does pull it together nicely from a local government perspective and makes clear that they have a vital role to play, it can’t just be left to market forces and even the strongest BIDs can’t do it alone.
The report sets out the key changes, pointing out that Local Data Company trends indicate that many town and city centres may be beginning to adapt by focusing on food, embracing heritage, developing digital and having an informed strategy; all important factors.
However, for me, the only strategy many places have had up to now is to develop a BID. Don’t get me wrong, they have a vital role to play. And, with around 300 BIDS now in the UK with funding that must total around £100m a year, we’d be in a much worse place without them.
The report says that the, Local authority-led strategy needs to follow an evidenced-based understanding of changing customer habits and refreshed roles for town centres.
So, in summary, the report is urging local government to have a strategy! I think that there are very many councils when asked “What is the stagey for the town/city centre” would struggle to articulate that other than, “we’ve got a BID”.
Finally, while I am encouraged by the LGA positive action here in producing the report, we can’t get away from single issues such as parking, anti-social behaviour or business rates.
Taking antisocial behaviour as an issues, which would include begging, rough sleeping, retail theft, threats to staff, drugs and a host of other issues, the report is silent. It makes no reference to business rates, which I accept is a matter for central government.
Get those basic factors right and you are a long way towards creating to a place people want to visit, but if we are to get long term change those that adapt fastest will steal a march on their rivals. And that means local government, BIDs and other stakeholders working together towards a common goal.
The real trick is agreeing what the goal is, and the LGAs report goes a long way to offering practical steps to bring that about. The final question is it right that it’s a Local authority-led strategy? That question can only be answered locally.