Town centres in England are evolving with retail no longer the dominant attraction for visitors to the high street, says a new report backed by research from Manchester Metropolitan University.

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has also led many people to rediscover their local neighbourhoods, according to analysis from the government-appointed High Streets Task Force, but many high streets may not go back to levels before the pandemic.

The Task Force, commissioned by the government in 2019 to support the transformation of England’s high streets and led by the Institute of Place Management (IPM) at Manchester Metropolitan, analysed footfall from 154 towns and found that 44% provide a wide range of different types of services to their communities and can be classified as ‘multifunctional’.

This type of town has increased by 8% in the last year (July 2019 – June 2020) and compares to just 19% of town centres that focus predominantly on ‘comparison retail’ to attract visitors, the research says.

Experts at the Task Force say multifunctional towns and districts that serve their local area have fared better during the coronavirus crisis.
From March 1 to June 30 this year footfall in smaller district centres fell by 34.5%, compared to a drop of 75.9% in larger cities over the same period.

Before the coronavirus pandemic had an impact, footfall in town centres had fallen by 5% since 2015 and the Task Force report suggests high streets may not recover to pre-coronavirus footfall levels.

Professor Cathy Parker, Co-Chair of the IPM at Manchester Metropolitan and Research Director of the High Streets Task Force, said: “The historic decline in footfall we’ve seen doesn’t mean that all high streets are failing. It shows that their function is changing.
“Our research indicates that during and after the coronavirus lockdown, local high streets have been people’s lifeline for essential retail and services and as a gateway to local parks and greenspace. People are rediscovering their local areas and rethinking what they want from their high streets.”

The Task Force report calls for a re-think of how towns are classified and recommends planning authorities focus on levels of ‘activity’, or how busy the town is, instead of defining a town by the amount of retail floorspace it has.

Research from the Task Force shows that over a quarter (26%) of towns have less footfall than their official planning designation would suggest.

Many local authorities use a retail hierarchy to designate centres as major cities, regional centres, sub-regional centres, major towns, towns or districts.
However, the Task Force says this often doesn’t match the centre’s footfall volume, with its research finding no real difference in footfall volumes between centres categorised in planning terms as ‘major towns’ or ‘towns’.

Professor Parker said: “Over a quarter of towns in our dataset may be setting visions and plans that are, perhaps, unachievable. Towns that have a ‘sub-regional’ classification, but where footfall is considerably lower than would be expected, are especially prone to being convinced that more retail or commercial development is the way to regain their status. Serving their local population and being a multifunctional hub is a more achievable route to sustainability, generating a stable level of footfall.
“We believe that an ‘activity hierarchy’ is a better way to consider our town centres – as either major cities, regional centres, towns or districts. This simpler approach, based on footfall, would make for better planning decisions and help to emphasise that for many places, serving their local population with a wide range of services is a more achievable route to success.”

In highlighting the changing fortunes and role of town and city centres post-lockdown, the Task Force report also highlights the need to consider how liveable places are for their resident populations.
High Streets Task Force Chair, Mark Robinson, said: “The pandemic has brought forward changes that usually take years to occur, instead of ‘how long is the commute’ people are asking ‘do I live within walking distance of the services I need – like food, green space, healthcare, schools and childcare’.
“It is clear that multifunctional town centres are on the rise and we now have the opportunity to accelerate this to meet the challenge of bringing back into productive use, redundant retail space.”


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