The Time to Act is Now: A Framework for Post-COVID 19 Recovery for our Towns and Cities

By Nikos Ntounis, Regine Sonderland Saga, Maria Loronõ-Leturiondo, Tom Hindmarch and Cathy Parker

Each passing day we are witnessing the unprecedented effects of COVID-19 on the heart of our cities and towns, as the boundless pandemic is altering – and potentially displacing – their social and economic role. In the UK, as in other countries, the implementation of strict public health measures means that the majority of service-based and non-food retail, hospitality and leisure business premises remain closed to reduce social contact (MHCLG, 2020). Footfall, a key metric in the management of town centres and other commercial areas, has declined since the lockdown was announced on the 23rd of March. Yesterday (31st of March) footfall was down 81.4% compared to the same period last year (Springboard, 2020). The relatively short period of disruption has already triggered the first wave of store closures (Laura Ashley, BrightHouse, Carluccio’s), impacting first on the most vulnerable businesses, whose position was fragile even before COVID-19.

However, the scale of the pandemic and the unprecedented public health response will mean much more disturbance is yet to come.  Macroeconomic estimates suggest that the economic shock of COVID-19 will be around 10% of global GDP. This is five times more than the credit and liquidity problems that caused the global financial crisis of 2007-2008 (Milne, 2020). A massive number of bankruptcies will likely follow, which will put at risk many jobs and have a significant impact on the attractiveness of many of our towns and cities. Not only will their offer be reduced as less businesses come back to our town centres, post-COVID-19 – but there may be less demand for these businesses in the future. Prolonged lockdown can fundamentally change consumer behaviour, as people become dependent on having products delivered to their home. A survey by analyst Retail Economics of 2,000 consumers, quoted in The Guardian, found that two-thirds of shoppers said they had switched to purchasing products online that they have always previously purchased in-store (Inman, 2020). But the increasingly multifunctional town/city is not only at risk of being obsolescent to shoppers. People used to exercise in their front room, may not go back to the gym; employees who like working from home may not return to the office; friends accustomed to socialising online may no longer pop down the pub.

And, it is not just the everyday functions of towns that will be affected. The impact of travel bans is already evident in many tourist and holiday destinations, and, looking ahead to the future, it is likely that many plans for transformation will be put on hold, as funding (public and private) is needed now for surviving the crisis.

Introducing the IPM Post-COVID 19 Recovery Framework

As the professional body for the place management sector, it is our role to continuously monitor this unprecedented situation, and provide guidance to our members, partners and places. It is not clear how the ‘pandemic city’ (or town) will look like after the end of the outbreak (Füller, 2016). However, by taking into account the knowledge and expertise that we have accumulated over the years by working in partnership with the government, local authorities, BIDs, town centre management organisations and other professional bodies, and by working “on the ground” with local partnerships, town teams, and individuals, we believe that many town centres and high streets may not manage to recover from the effects of the COVID-19 crisis, unless they start acting immediately to develop the necessary capacity for recovery and then longer-term transformation.

In order to assist place managers who are responsible with the gargantuan task of supporting their cities and towns through this pandemic, we have developed a COVID-19 framework (see figure 1). The framework bears similarities to risk management and disaster reduction frameworks such as the Health Emergency and Disaster Risk Management (Health-EDRM) and Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (SFDRR) (Djalante et al, 2020), as it calls for systematic analysis of data, coordination, collective leadership and management of our towns and cities through a series of preparedness, response, and recovery measures. The complex operating environment of our towns and cities, “comprising multitudes of actors, firms and other organisations forming diverse relationships and evolving together” (Turok, 2009:14), necessitates such measures in order for towns and cities to build urban service system resilience, which is “the ability of a system to anticipate, absorb, adapt to and /or recover from a disruptive event” (Baron et al, 2014). 

The framework consists of four stages, which are briefly described below: 

CRISIS (Acting right now)

This first stage is where most towns and cities around the world are now, and will be, for the foreseeable future. With lockdowns and closures of all business premises apart from essential retail, and with the majority of the population working or learning from home, town centres are currently deserted. National crisis management measures are now in place, in the UK, for most businesses, including: a Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme and Self-employment Income Support Scheme; a 12-month business rates holiday for all retail, hospitality, leisure and nursery businesses; small business grant funding of £10,000; retail, hospitality and leisure business grant funding of £25,000; and a Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (GOV.UK, 2020). Around the world, similar support is being offered. Local place management authorities are coordinating many of these schemes, paying out grants and loans, for example. Other place management organisations, such as Business Improvement Districts, are not sitting idle, they are taking action, providing advice and support to businesses, helping them understand the rules and, in many cases, helping them apply for support. Local authorities, businesses, BIDs, community groups and partnerships are all coming together, in different permutations, to coordinate emergency support, such as ensuring isolating individuals and families have access to food and medical supplies.

Figure 1: IPM’s Post-COVID-19 Framework for Recovery

Equally, analysing data and information in crisis, even when seemingly no activity is taking place is still important. By working with Springboard and, IPM has been able to give the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government access to a dashboard so that senior officials and ministers can interrogate daily footfall – so that the government can better understand the impact of closures. IPM now publishes the High Street Footfall Daily Index – using Springboard data, showing daily changes in footfall across the UK in total, and by town type.

At the town centre level, data is also important. Footfall is an important baseline for recovery. Likewise, other data, such as having accurate information on the type of businesses in the town can help to guide the type of support that is needed in this crisis stage and model what the likely impact will be of various lockdown scenarios (3 weeks or 3 months etc.). Some towns will just be more resilient than others. It is unlikely that businesses that do not have, at least, some online presence and way to communicate with customers can survive.

Ramping up communication attempts via all channels, reassuring businesses and residents that protective measures and support mechanisms are in place, and slowly discussing the next steps of action, including ideas that can provide some short-term relief and normalcy, especially for small businesses, are crucial. During the 2013 Southeast Asian Haze, for example, when citizens were also required to stay indoors, social media allowed observation of citizens’ physical and psychological well-being during the crisis, and evaluate how citizens were coping (Zhang et al., 2014). Place managers and their teams should encourage innovation and make it easier for these to be adopted across the town, initiatives such as selling pre-paid vouchers and gift cards in exchange for services in the future are already proving popular. They can also support stressed business owners by helping them to apply for grants and other relief measures, and also discuss future steps with the wider community that will strengthen cooperation and increase the creation of cooperative mechanisms, even by taking lessons from community resilience and civic capacity from the Spanish Flu era (e.g. Rao and Greve, 2018).

The IPM provides ongoing support for members of The BID Foundation through the crisis and offers regular communication and information to members with weekly webinars. A COVID-19 best practice guidance for UK BIDs has also been produced to advise The BID Foundation members and their levy payers on balloting, billing and other general BID queries. Social media has undoubtedly been invaluable to businesses and their BIDs in terms of communicating closures and how they adapt to new demands.

PRE-RECOVERY (Building capacity for recovery and transformation)

It is important that place managers and leaders, as well as dealing with the current crisis, start planning for recovery. We have called this stage ‘pre-recovery’ and it is a crucial step towards building collective capacity and moving towards more reflexive forms of place governance and coordinated leadership. These include models of follower-dominant leadership styles (Collinge and Gibney, 2010) that embrace the variety of roles that people espouse in their towns, and an appreciation of self-management and self-organisation strategies. Put simply, we need to work together now on good ideas and plans to encourage people back to our high streets – recovery will depend on building more local capacity for action and effective mechanisms for coordinating this (Ntounis, 2018).

Such programmes of action need to be supplemented by knowledge exchange initiatives and support, such as the Vital & Viable neighbourhood centres programme that advocates a collective learning experience via a model of engaged scholarship (Ntounis and Parker, 2017), and relevant training that will support future place management decision-making, such as interpreting dashboard data and information and prioritising place interventions by using tested high street models such as the IPM’s Top 25 Priorities for vitality and viability.

RECOVERY (Getting people back to places)

In the recovery stages post COVID-19, the IPM will support high streets and town centres in getting people back to places. There will be no one-size-fits-all solution, however; collating stories about how places across the UK and internationally are recovering will be crucial for town centres to learn from each other and adopt suitable approaches or new remedial action. Data collected regarding day-to-day indicators such as footfall, sentiment and spend will be crucial to establishing what the ‘new normal’ for town centres is looking like. The widespread dissemination of case studies illustrating adaptable solutions for businesses and retail centres can also boost the recovery process in localities. We may witness new public-private partnerships attracting investment and the emergence of more grassroot projects can be expected as a result of the pandemic. We have already seen, at the crisis stage, the enormous creativity and ingenuity of individuals and businesses – and we must ensure this is nurtured in the recovery stage, and not side-lined in an attempt to go back to how things were.

Williams and Vorley (2014:257) note that “entrepreneurship is integral to promoting the diversification and capacity building of regional economies”. Therefore, it is important that such entrepreneurship, including social and cultural entrepreneurship, and partnerships are encouraged and supported by local authorities in order to ensure that new types of businesses and organisations can grow and provide jobs and goods for local communities. Art, culture, music and heritage are very likely to play an important role in recovery. We expect to see lots of festivals, parties and events that will bring people together. Depending on how long people have been social distancing may impact on the optimal size for some of these early recovery initiatives. Public health guidance may continue to regulate crowds and place managers will need to be mindful of all these scenarios. Together, these elements will hopefully drive footfall back to our town centres.

TRANSFORMATION (Supporting place leaders transform their places)

The final stage of the recovery framework points at the conscious attempt to improve the place – to do more than recover but to innovate and address new challenges, such as climate change, decarbonisation, economic inequality, social justice etc. At this stage, transforming town centres must also aspire to offer a good range of goods and services for visitors, a good trading environment for businesses and a good quality of life for their residents. It is the stage where IPM and The BID Foundation can support place managers with their range of professional products which ensure members lead the evolution of the sector.  Continuing Professional Development, accreditations, qualifications, conferences, research and thought leadership all helps place managers support the transformation of the places they serve,

In conclusion, this post provides a brief outline of the framework for town centre recovery from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. We endeavour to provide more detailed information, backed up with evidence from previous crises, for each stage in future post(s). We hope that this Framework will help place managers and other relevant audiences to not only start acting immediately towards combating the crisis, but also to develop a coordinated and systematic approach to the management of its recovery and improvement. These are times where strong governance, place leadership, community vigilance and participation, and wise use of data and technologies are needed (Djalante et al, 2020), as well as the support of professional place managers (High Streets UK 2020; Achieving Change) in order for towns and cities to survive. Rest assured, as the professional body for place managers and leaders, we will support all our members in this important endeavour.


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