by Steve Millington (Institute of Place Management); Karen Findley and Martin Saker (Manchester City Council); Dave Payne (Withington Village Regeneration Partnership)
Given under lockdown people are beginning to rediscover their locality (see Gary Warnaby’s IPM blog piece), and using centres within walking distance of their homes more often, it is timely to reconsider the role and function of smaller, and specifically district centres,in recovery planning. With people noticing the health and environmental benefits of reduced commuter traffic, adding to the well-documented benefits of walking and cycling, we might now reinforce such positive developments through a commitment to strengthening centres close to people’s homes, to embed ties to localities developed during lockdown. Furthermore, IPM research into 18 district centres in Greater Manchester suggests that around 150 businesses on average are located in each one, although the largest centres accommodate over 300. With 70 smaller, significant local and suburban centres across the GM region, collectively they make a significant contribution to the local economy. Moreover, if predictions come to fruition the ‘New Normal’ will involve more people working from home, place leaders now need to think more seriously about the potential for district centres to become more than just places for convenience shopping and personal services.
Over the course of the last twenty years or so, footfall in our town centres has been falling. The decline started with the growth of out-of-town shopping and has been accelerated by the Internet. Not only does the Internet give us on-line shopping, it also offers a huge array of other services, like banking, holidays, and insurance – and, be default, many more reasons not to go to town. Finally, our politicians gave us austerity, which closed down libraries, youth centres and left even more empty buildings.
Urban stakeholders are increasingly realising the importance
of collective action in attempts to ‘future proof’ town and city centres, to
ensure that ‘their’ centre retains an important role in the economic and social
life of associated communities. Such
collective actions, often implemented under the aegis of urban management
partnerships (UMPs), raise some key questions for these organisations: what
type(s) of collective interventions are the most effective; and how to create
sufficient support for them?
In 2017-18, a research project, led by the Amsterdam
University of Applied Sciences and funded by Shopping Tomorrow (a Dutch retail and e-commerce think-tank), which
comprised an expert group containing a number of IPM researchers and members,
tried to answer these questions.
Specifically, the research – which analysed a variety of different types
of interventions in 21 towns and cities across the Netherlands, Belgium and the
UK – sought to identify and illustrate the factors that underpin successful
collective interventions aimed at ’future-proofing’ town and city centres.
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
The speed of change in retail is having a real impact on places. From ghost malls to dark stores in North America and the headline-hitting town centre vacancy across much of Europe, it is easy to be persuaded that we are nearing the end of bricks and mortar retail. Those of us working in place management know this is not the case but there are plenty of recent examples of how once a story gets a hold, the prophecy becomes self-fulfilling. This is why the Institute welcomed the re-emergence of the Great British High Street Awards. Promoted by the UK Government at Ministerial level and with strong backing from principal sponsor Visa, the initiative had sufficient weight to gain media attention and make its own headlines over an extended period, culminating in an award ceremony on 15 November.
Manchester is one of five European regions set to benefit from a new European fund designed to help regional and local governments to develop and deliver better town centre policy.
The Institute of Place Management (IPM) at Manchester Metropolitan University will utilise part of a £1.5 million grant from the European funding body Interreg, to investigate how companies, councils and other local groups can work together more effectively to improve their town centres. One of the major outcomes of the work will be a nationwide audit of Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) and their achievements.
Over recent years, TED talks have become something of a global phenomenon; showcasing the work of the brightest brains from all over the World through their series of short, powerful presentations covering a whole host of topics. On 28th April 2018, Macclesfield, in North West England and close to IPM headquarters, hosted their own TEDx event to showcase just some of the forward-thinking ideas, research, and experiences from those with personal connections to the town. In TED’s spirit of ‘Ideas Worth Spreading’, TEDx Macclesfield connects people with a shared link to Macclesfield to spark conversations, share ideas, and help to collectively make positive changes to the town at a local level. The event was organised by Lynne Jones and Jude D’Souza with help from enthusiastic local volunteers. Jones explained the importance of holding such a renowned event in the town:
“Macclesfield (as perhaps any town) is grappling with a number of big issues – town centre regeneration, mental health service provision, local governance and democracy, supporting start-up businesses, and of course Brexit – but there are fewer public forums where real engagement can take place and ideas can be shared locally… The more of us who put something in, however small, the greater the sense connection and the stronger the community becomes. The danger is that we are living in silos more than ever, not hearing from those who hold different views…”
This event was about dismantling such silos, and creating a platform for cultivating a network of local people with a shared passion for making Macclesfield a more thriving place to live, work, and dwell. The event was a complete sell-out, with an audience of 100 local people gathering in Townley Street Chapel- a community hub in Macclesfield. Although the speakers covered a diverse range of topics, the presentations were threaded together by the common theme of how collaboration is key– something which is integral for generating any place’s vitality and viability.
As our members will know, at IPM we spend much of our time conducting research into how we can make better places. Much of this work focuses on the high street, and whilst our towns and cities are clearly operating in a challenging environment, we are always keen to point out that this challenge does not signal their demise. Rather, it is reflective of a shift in how we use them, with retail no longer the critical fulcrum it once was, and it is down to place managers to develop the means of capitalising on this change in demand.
As this realisation sets in, towns and cities are increasingly looking for ways to complement their retail offer, encouraging visitors through other means. One way this is being done is through the development of a cultural offering. This is nothing new – planners and policy makers began to espouse the development of cultural activity in the early 1990s as a means of revitalising cities in the process of de-industrialisation[i], encouraging the rise of the ‘experience economy’[ii]. As a result, culture has, over time, become an increasingly common means of consuming a city[iii]. Continue reading “What can culture and the arts do for a place? “→