What is the future role of high streets and town centres?

Steve Perkins

Steve Perkins



From their very beginnings as locations for merchants to exchange their wares, the UK’s towns have responded and adapted to the changing lifestyles of the populations they serve.

Today, we refer to those factors as “disrupters”, but adapting to change is not new to those owning or controlling land and assets, or with responsibility for urban planning, or indeed for those businesses and residents who live, work or trade in the UK’s towns.

What has changed, however, is the magnitude and pace by which today’s disrupters have presented a pretty stark choice for those who manage our urban centres; plan, adapt and flourish, or sit back and witness their physical and economic decline.

The seemingly unstoppable rise of online shopping (which began with the supermarkets in the early 2000s – albeit some explored this during the 1980s) has almost become the new normal, and while supermarkets’ convenience shopping initially led the charge, Amazon’s growth since its ‘online bookstore’ birth in 1995 has been nothing short of phenomenal.

Adapting to the new normal

2020 has seen a step-change in shopping patterns, and one which has placed the future of our town centres and high streets in the spotlight. Online shopping became, almost overnight, the only way to purchase convenience and comparison goods, resulting from the COVID-enforced lockdown and temporary (or for some, permanent) closure of retail businesses.

With the persistent presence of the virus, the permanent closure of some high street retailers and a slow return for cafes, restaurants and entertainment venues, as well as offices, to ‘new normal’ working practices it’s perhaps hard to see any significant decline in future online sales and therefore, any significant rush back to our town centres.

This poses a problem for many retailers and workers. What is the future role of the town centre and do we have the prescience to respond to inevitable change? Accompanying a plan to accommodate and support its role will need to be done in a sustainable, attractive and economically viable way.

Plan for change

The town centre has demonstrated its resilience to change; be it the challenge to its status from increased car ownership, the rise of the supermarkets, retail parks and out of town shopping centres, advancements in home entertainment, or the switch to online banking and accessing public services. The recent surge in online retail  due to social distancing and home working demand an immediate, and in some cases, fundamental review of what town centres should become. There are several options to consider:

  • Consolidation: high streets and town centres may have to consolidate their offers to a smaller spatial footprint – this will lead to more sites being taken out of town centre designations and available for alternative uses
  • Experiential shopping: increasing independent retailing as a (primarily) leisure activity may be better suited to certain locations with higher tourism footfall
  • Try and buy: retail premises to see, touch and test products and then to order them in store, online, for home delivery – retail units would not hold stock
  • Conversion: converting retail and other high street units to non-retail uses
  • Demolition and housing: retail parks are seeing an increase in residential development and applications are emerging as locations for new homes
  • Urban parks: opportunities with redundant sites to make towns greener, cleaner and to support greater wellbeing
  • Flexible spaces: curation of civic spaces, capable of hosting seasonal activities and events (the ‘permanent meanwhile’)

Start with the vision

Local Authority planning departments often have many old masterplans stored away – great ideas of their time which promised a great future. The inability for these to deliver has often been less about the visions they promised, rather the challenges of fragmented land ownership, the high cost versus low value, the politics around planning, or the time they took to implement.

The plan now is no longer just the preserve of visionary town planners. Retailers, landowners and property owners, restauranteurs, local authority departments, small businesses and above all, the communities and people these town centres have traditionally served are collectively recognising the need for action. These are places to do business, trade, socialise, perform, support and to provide homes, jobs and incomes.

Sustainable, supported, deliverable plans

The government is demonstrating its commitment to helping with the problem, answering the calls made by the UK2070 Commission in its final report to address the country’s stark regional inequalities, by strengthening the foundations of local economies, implementing a comprehensive framework for inclusive devolution and ensuring fairer access to funding.

The good news is that there are multiple sources of funding intended to help civic partners and local authorities work with communities to explore, assess and develop long-term sustainable plans. There are also landowners keen to invest in their assets, mechanisms for local authorities to act as developers and government funding to provide the foundations needed to support delivery.

Given the scale, scope and urgency of the challenges faced, the prospect of developing a plan for delivery can be daunting. However, by applying local knowledge, data analysis, structured engagement and consultation, governance and decision-making processes, navigation through the planning system, development of the compelling case for change, ideas and plans and above all, commitment, town centres and high streets can start to forge new roles for the future.

Further resources

Please visit our COVID-19 response page for all of our resources relating to the impact of COVID-19 on the construction sector.

For further information contact:

Steve Perkins

Steve Perkins

t: +44 (0)207 5444000