The decline of town centre shopping has been a problem for local authorities for some time and efforts to reverse the tide were in motion long before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. For the last few years, local authorities have embarked on a trend of buying shopping districts and precincts, with councils reportedly behind the purchase of one in five shopping centres sold since 2016.
The prosperity of town centres has become intertwined with the fortunes of high street retail chains, at a time when browsing increasingly moves online. With lockdown creating new possibilities for the products and services consumers can access from the comfort of their own armchairs, this trend is set to gather momentum.
Investing in existing retail assets to regenerate regional centres is one approach already on the table, but there are alternative and additional models to consider as we begin to navigate the post-COVID landscape, which can help to strengthen these existing tactics.
One successful strategy is a more root and branch review of the way our town centres are designed and their offerings, working in partnership with communities and sharing risk between local authorities and developers.
Our relationship with Trafford Council in Greater Manchester, can be viewed as a litmus test for this approach, and offers up two notable takeaways.
The first is the value that can be injected into an area when local authorities and experienced developers join forces. Our partnership with the council began more than 20 years ago when we began to work closely on a series of major projects. It’s evolved over time, and we now act together as strategic institutional investors, with aligned governance, shared risk and long-term ambitions. Together, we steer the direction of travel and make decisions around landmark projects as one engine room and evaluate success over many years.
Secondly, it demonstrates that there needs to be a rethink of how town centres are designed and what they offer, working in partnership with the existing local community. Buying shopping centre sites can be the first step but going on to develop a masterplan for how the space will be reinvigorated in the future is key.
In the immediate future, creating mixes of experience-led attractions alongside independent outlets are a tried-and-tested method of boosting footfall. Then for the long-term, designing a blended space with a cultural hub at its heart will make town centres thrive. Having a clear plan for where town-centre living, public services and green spaces will be placed and how they will serve a community is essential.
There’s encouraging evidence that a silver lining from the pandemic has been a spike in footfall and spend at smaller, independent retailers and restaurants based in towns and suburbs as increasing numbers of people shop local. Looking to crystallise these new habits into long-term changes should be front of mind for local councils.
In Trafford, Altrincham is already a well-known ‘best in show’ story. The town once recorded one of the highest shop vacancy rates in the UK with almost a third of the shops lying empty, but by redeveloping the local market and encouraging independent traders to populate it, it underwent a significant revival.
Phase two of the town’s regeneration is the next challenge. To ensure the turnaround continues to flow outside of the market square, we acquired the adjacent Stamford Quarter shopping centre, again with the council. We’re now exploring how we can adapt its offering to better complement the market, including assessing the viability of other uses beyond retail.
Stretford, a neighbourhood in need of investment by comparison, is at the beginning of its own journey and the two provide an interesting contrast. After purchasing Stretford Mall with the council last year, we’re working with the community on a fundamental reappraisal of the type of town centre it needs in order to thrive. This extends not just to how its retail makeup needs to evolve to include other assets the community can use, but its layout and design too.
As the two Trafford districts show, town centres across the UK are sitting on untapped economic potential. By using the same template for partnership-led, long-term regeneration between the public and private sector, they could be transformed.
This model is at the core of our future plans, and the satellite towns and suburbs of Greater Manchester are primed to follow in the footsteps of the city centre. Collaboration will be the bedrock to future rejuvenation.
Ciara Keeling is CEO at Bruntwood Works