Meet the IPM: Interview with Chris Hurst

Chris HurstChris Hurst is a Fellow of the Institute of Place Management and Association of Town and City Management (ATCM) Award winner. Chris has been helping to make great places for a decade and has significant experience with operational and strategic place-management projects, having run the national Town Team and Portas Pilot support programme for ATCM and DCLG, as well roles with Birmingham City Centre Management and Retail Birmingham BID.

Chris Hurst, You established Clockwork City in 2015. What does the agency do and upon what principles does it work?*

Chris Hurst: Clockwork City is a placemaking and socio-economic development agency, specialising in establishing Omnichannel Places that are able to engage, promote and represent themselves online, in print and on street.

The British Retail Consortium warned that almost one million retail jobs could be lost over the next decade as high streets struggle with the growing impact of the ‘connected consumer’ and their increasingly digital lifestyles. We believe that ‘the internet’, increasing mobile-digital connectivity through smartphones, and the instant access to information these provide is an opportunity place-managers can and should be taking, rather than a threat to our towns, cities and small businesses.

Together with my partners Guy Douglas and Xav Anderson, Clockwork City develops place management plans and delivers coal-face schemes that help towns, cities, businesses and organisations adapt to this increasingly digital consumer landscape, while remaining vibrant social spaces and resilient economic engines.

The agency is founded on the principal that places require balance, and specifically balance across four key drivers; community appeal and accessibility, economic performance, internal and external perceptions, and digital discoverability.

We are currently putting this into practice in Brent, Gloucestershire and Staffordshire, defining and developing ‘digital high streets’ that promote their unique sense of place through multiple channels as major retail brands currently do. A key part of this process is ensuring businesses and place-managers are confident using the tools at their disposal too.

“Τhe internet, increasing mobile-digital connectivity through smartphones, and the instant access to information these provide is an opportunity place-managers can and should be taking, rather than a threat to our towns, cities and small businesses.”

You worked in different functions in town centre management in Birmingham: (Birmingham City Centre Partnership and Retail Birmingham). What is the particular situation of the city centre and retail in Birmingham?

Chris Hurst: If you have been to Birmingham City Centre over the past three years, you would have noticed substantial regeneration works taking place. Much of this is now complete, and the combined effect is remarkably transformative physically and emotionally, from the subtle changes a new, clean streetscene makes on local residents, to the downright amazement from those not familiar with the City Centre on a daily basis – last month, I overheard someone say Birmingham’s public realm reminded them of Singapore!

Major (and minor) development schemes are often the antithesis to the conditions consumer-facing businesses need to thrive, even though they are designed to create environments for businesses to do just this. But despite the physical disruption and impact on visitor perceptions these works have, in Birmingham vacancy levels have remained below national averages and businesses are seeing footfall increasing and consumer spend returning as projects near completion.

As a consumer offer, Birmingham has a depth of anchor destinations that has seen it remain resilient and competitive during an unstable broader economic period and through significant development works. It is the only City bar London with the Big Five department stores (Debenhams, Harvey Nichols, House of Fraser, John Lewis, Selfridges) and these businesses alone add significant marketing clout and consumer pull. Add Bullring, the new Grand Central and newly refurbished Mailbox into this, plus over 100 independent businesses and arcades, at least 30,000 office workers transiting through the retail core daily, the appeal of venues such as Symphony Hall and the National Indoor Arena, the creative community developing within Digbeth, the LGBT and Chinese communities within Southside, and a picture of a resilient, diverse City Centre emerges.

This doesn’t happen by accident. During my time operating in Birmingham (four years ago now, although I do still live there), I was part of the ‘on paper’ reinvention of the City Centre thanks to roles with the public and private sector. The Big City Plan is worth a read, and schemes such as the Vision for Movement (tram and bus networks), Interconnect Birmingham (an award-winning wayfinding system) and Retail Birmingham Design Strategy all fed into this larger picture. It was a fascinating period, and it has been even better to watch ideas emerge as complete projects.

I often feel lucky to have ‘cut my teeth’ in Birmingham in both public and private sector environments. It’s a busy, diverse, exciting City Centre to be part of, and one that provided different challenges on a daily basis. As a destination, it has a substantial retail, leisure and professional pull on the region and, increasingly, (inter)nationally, and as a destination it continues to grow and develop.

You co-authored the Digital High Street Hub report for Innovate UK. What was that project about? Can you share some of its major findings with us?

Chris Hurst: The Digital High Street Hub report, commissioned by Innovate UK, forms part of a growing evidence base the need for places and businesses to embrace ‘digital’ tools and opportunities. This process is being led by a broad partnership of businesses, Government and LEPs, set up in part to help local economies integrate digital tools into their daily management, and create an attractive and engaging on line and off line experience for communities and consumers throughout the UK.

The predecessor to the Hub report, the Digital High Street 2020 report, outlined the digital potential of our high streets, towns and cities, and proposed partnership mechanisms to enable this. The Digital Hub is one such mechanism, and the Hub report tested the need for this service as a provider of active guidance and tailored intervention, supporting place-managers to define and develop their own digital capacities as well as their respective location.

The results showed that impartial guidance on what exactly a ‘digital high street’ is was clearly needed, as well as support to gauge whether apps, online loyalty systems, managed social media services and a plethora of other ‘digital’ services were actually beneficial to places.

The impact of this report is currently being seen in the test locations of Cheltenham, Gloucester and Stroud, in the Great Gloucestershire High Street programme.

“I think BIDs face two challenges in the coming years – the principle of ‘additionality’, and their role in balancing social need with economic development.¨

You have worked on several BIDs in the UK. What do you think are the major challenges they are faced with?

Chris Hurst: BIDs have really seen a boom in popularity since their introduction in 2005. There are now over 200 operating in the UK, with many of these successfully entering second and even third terms. Plenty has been written and said about BIDs to date, and in the right area, managed by the right people, they are tremendously effective.

I think BIDs face two challenges in the coming years – the principle of ‘additionality’, and their role in balancing social need with economic development.

First, additionality. My worry is that as public sector finances become increasingly strained, some place-management functions will be sacrificed to balance the books. This could be cutting funding for festive lighting or events, reducing the frequency the bins are emptied or street furniture is painted, or larger issues such as reduced Police presence or fewer local authority staff able to deal with planning and development issues. Will BIDs be forced to step in and provide basic, non-statutory services that local authorities can no longer afford to deliver? Can these services be ignored without damaging the perception, and perhaps even safety, or a place? It is a challenging question when BIDs are founded on the principle of not backfilling or replace Council services..

The second challenge relates to the social part of socio-economic development. BIDs, by their nature, are often dominated by businesses. As places expand their remit to once again offer social, experiential and leisure opportunities alongside traditional retail functions, BID Boards must be cognisant of the need not to reduce ‘community members’ to simple ‘consumers’.

You are a fellow of the Institute of Place Management. What do you expect from an organization such as the IPM? What can it deliver to its members?

Chris Hurst: I’m not an academic, but I appreciate being part of an Institute and a community that allows me to learn from and share experiences with people at the intellectual forefront of our industry. I find the Journal and Research sections of the website especially useful, and it is this ability of the IPM to build and share place research, giving practitioners like myself a simpler, faster link to academics and researchers in the same field, that I find so valuable.

*The interview was conducted by Ares Kalandides

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