How a Task Force might help English town and city centres

Dover Town Centre. Photo taken from Cannon Street.
Photo by Eluveitie – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

by Simon Quin

The UK Government has announced that it is to fund the establishment of a High Street Task Force for five years to support the transformation of town centres in England.

During 2018, the Institute also worked closely with UK Government to tease out some of the underlying issues affecting town centre vitality and viability. There is a long history of policy-led responses to the challenges of town centres in the UK, from adaptations to planning policy in the mid-1990s  (“Town centres first” and the Sequential Test), through support for Town Centre Management and the bringing forward of legislation to permit Business Improvement Districts (2003 in England), then a government-supported review led by retail consultant Mary Portas (2011) to the establishment of Future High Street Forum chaired by a government Minister (2013).

In 2018, headlines of retail brand closures became ever more common, a second review of what was happening on the high street led by former retail chief Bill Grimsey was published and the Future High Street Forum looked in detail at some of the issues behind change on the high street. The Minister for the High Street then appointed an Expert Panel led by retailer Sir John Timpson to investigate and report on what could be done. Following a series of workshops, facilitated by the Institute, and meetings with key town centre stakeholders, Sir John made recommendations to government that underlay the allocation of £1.5 billion to support town centres through business rate relief for small retailers and the establishment of a £675 million fund for co-funding investment in town centres.

The Expert Panel’s report said that more than money was needed, though the Fund was important. It recommended some short term initiatives but also the establishment of a High Street Task Force that would:

1. Be a single voice for town centres

2. Provide places with access to the data to help them improve their town centres

3. Facilitate cross-sector networking and skills building

4. Share information and best practice stories

5. Provide access to expert help and support

6. Help to enable local ‘champions’ in driving forward their plans

7. Help to streamline the planning process.

The Government accepted this recommendation and announced that this would happen. In February 2019, an 84 page report on High Streets and Town Centres in 2030 was published by a Parliamentary Committee following a six month Inquiry. They welcomed the creation of the Task Force but suggested:

“It must be much more than a forum for discussion and avoid becoming a ‘talking shop’ and, in combination with the Future High Streets Fund, must provide real and tangible support directly to local areas on a much greater scale than the Portas pilots. While centrally collated data, best practice and case studies will certainly be needed, given the enormity of the challenge they face, there is a clear need for local areas to have access to proactive expert support” (Page 59).

The Committee recommended a wider scope for the Task Force than they understood Government was looking for. Whilst we await the formal publication of the tender for the Task Force, which is due imminently, it would appear that the brief will fall somewhere between what the Committee understood and what it recommended.

In developing ideas for the Task Force, England has looked to Scotland’s Towns Partnership, an initiative established in 2014 with financial support from the Scottish Government that works with towns and key stakeholders across the country. They refer to themselves as the “go-to body” for Scotland’s towns and since 2018 this has included Improvement Districts Scotland. The Task Force in England will be larger in scale and funding but will certainly benefit from Scotland’s experience.  

Over the next few weeks we will discover more detail about the Task Force, and the Institute will prepare a proposal to deliver it. We will need to work with others on this, but we are hopeful that this focused resource will make a real difference to town centres.

England’s town centres are not the only ones feeling the impact of the development of out of town and online retailing, coupled with under investment in the core of towns and cities. Many centres across Europe are experiencing declining footfall and spend and increasing retail vacancy. The Institute of Place Management has worked with towns from across Europe as part of two URBACT projects: RetaiLink and City Centre Doctor who came together in Barcelona in late 2018 to raise the challenges of medium size cities with the European Union and national governments. It may be that England’s experience with the Task Force will have wider use.