Working together for stronger towns

Oxford_High_Street_shoppersby Prof Cathy Parker

On the 4th July 2016 I was invited to take part in the inaugural Oxfordshire High Streets Conference.  I  am saying inaugural as the delegates found the day very useful so we hope there will be another one! As a place management scholar, there is nothing better than sharing place insight and debating its relevance, in a local context. As a researcher, I get to know a lot about problems and I get to know my data intimately.   But, my work tends to be read by academics and other people who also focus on the data/problem side of things.  This means I don’t always connect with the people who want to put our research findings into practice.  To get the opportunity to present our research on footfall signatures at the event was especially rewarding.  Having the chance to hear directly from representatives of towns that feel their centre’s profile is changing from one of comparison shopping to one that is more focused on community retail and services, for example, was really useful.  I got a chance to take part in the important debate about what this change means ‘on the ground’, in terms of managing the offer, attracting the right type of businesses, changing opening hours and communicating all these changes in the community.


“The Internet is not killing the high street, but it is transforming it.”


As the Keynote Speaker for the event I was also invited to give a couple of radio and TV interviews.  One of these was for Howard Bentham’s Radio Oxford Breakfast Show. His questions were typical of what people want to know about High Streets. Namely, how much research is there telling us what works on the high street? Are there answers or is everyone making it up as they go along?  What are the main factors that determine whether a high street is successful or not? Will the Internet kill the high street?  And, finally, what would I do if I was in charge of a town (I am not used to getting this last question!). I use the rest of this blog to give some answers to these questions.

How much research has been done into what works on the high street?

A lot. Our High Street UK 2020 project, funded by the ESRC, found relevant articles and commentary dating back to 1892. Academic researchers have been predicting many of the problems we are currently facing today – as long ago as the 1960s. Despite there being a lot of useful information, it’s taken more popular figures like Mary Portas and Bill Grimsey to bring these findings to people concerned about the high street. What seems to happen is that technology changes, consumer behaviour changes but there is too long a time lag before town centre stakeholders (e.g. property owners, the council, retailers) adapt their decision making/operations in response to these major changes. We need our town centre decision makers to take a bit more notice of the research and predictions our academics and other experts make, so they can anticipate change and respond more effectively, rather than just wait until everything goes a bit ‘pear shaped’!

What have been the consequences of town leaders making decisions without evidence of what works?

Wasted funding, wasted effort and declining high streets. But it’s not just town leaders – its also decision makers at higher levels.  For example, retail planning policy is a national issue.  Our research has shown that the impact of out-of-town shopping is more negative than internet shopping on traditional retail areas like high streets. But, in England our town centre first policy has been gradually eroded – allowing more edge and out-of-town retailing to be built, whereas in Scotland they are very protective of their high streets – and are doing everything they can to ensure retailing and other services are in town centres.

What are the main factors that determine a high street’s success?

Number 1 is the range of shops, services and other attractions it offers – and whether these match and adapt to the needs of the people using the high street.  Attractions are not just shops.  Parks, leisure activities, schools and hospitals, public transport hubs and employers all attract footfall. The question is – how integrated are all these attractors into an overall town centre experience? For example, do business open later to cater for large numbers of commuters, ‘attracted’ to railway stations.

Number 2 is the accessibility of the high street – using a range of transport options – public transport, walking, cars or cycles etc. High streets can be forced into unnecessary decline by moving bus stations and stops, for example. And that’s why we hear so much about car-parking. But, as a rule of thumb the weaker the town’s offer (see above) the cheaper the car-parking needs to be. Strong towns do not need to worry about the price of car-parking!

Number 3 is competition to the high street from edge-of-town or out-of-town retailing.  Retail parks are seeing a rise in footfall – because they are not just a collection of retail sheds anymore, they have restaurants, gyms, cinemas – and free parking. In effect, they are becoming more convenient (for car-owners) replacements to the traditional high street.


“We need our town centre decision makers to take a bit more notice of the research and predictions our academics and other experts make”


Is the internet killing the high street?

No, the Internet is not killing the high street, but it is transforming it.  The Internet is speeding up the reinvention of the high street into something more suitable for today’s consumers.   Bodies like the Royal Town Planning Institute think that the UK has an oversupply of retail floor space – perhaps as high as 30%.  Now people are buying bulky physical products online, our town centres do not need to be full of fridges, freezers, mattresses, TVs and sofas etc., which take up a lot of room! This space can now be used for other uses.  As a result, many smaller town centres need to become more compact.  The retail and service offer needs to be concentrated – and town centre decision makers need to facilitate this to make it happen.  A town with a fragmented offer is not convenient as it is not easily walkable.

If you were put in charge of an average English town, what would be your first priority?


“The first priority should be establishing a realistic and shared vision of what the town centre offer needs to be – to meet the needs of the people that use it. “


Run to the hills! After all my time researching town and city centre change I know place management is not an easy job! Towns are full of lots of different types of people, shopkeepers, independents, multiples, residents, civic societies trying to protect history and heritage, transport planners trying to facilitate cycle paths, motorists wanting to park outside shops.  All these people have got competing expectations and requirements. So, the first priority should be establishing a realistic and shared vision of what the town centre offer needs to be – to meet the needs of the people that use it.  Our recent High Street UK 2020 project has shown that the sort of research work that is needed to reposition the town, so it meets the needs of its current catchment, is sorely lacking in the average English town.

 


This article was originally published on Prof Cathy Parker’s blog.

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