Revitalizing town centres. Will staying local help town centres thrive again?


Imagine the town centre of the future and the changes that need to be made to achieve it: what will it look like? Who will it serve and what part does it play in its community?


Urban centres are, and should be, responding to the needs of their communities, the challenges of changing retail habits, declining footfall, and the need for greater flexibility in our spaces. In light of COVID-19, how can town centres and local high streets recover and take advantage of people’s changing behaviours and values in relation to supporting local businesses, reducing travel and being more sustainable?


Our guests David Jobling, Director at Arcadis and Bill Grimsey, champion of the high street, discuss the future of town centres and more in the first episode of a new series of Long Story Short.

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Transcription


Emma Nelson [00:00:06] Hello and welcome to the first episode of a new series of Long Story Short, the podcast from Arcadis UK, where we focus on the recovery and revival of our cities.


Emma Nelson [00:00:18] I'm Emma Nelson. And today we look at the future of the town centre.


Bill Grimsey [00:00:22] So we call upon leadership to step forward, to bang down the door, and to make things happen by taking the total community with them.


David Jobling [00:00:30] This needs to be a conversation about value. Value is not just measured in cold, hard cash. It's measured in people's experience, health, life expectancy, impact on the planet.


Emma Nelson [00:00:41] My guests, David Jobling from Arcadis UK and champion of the high street, Bill Grimsey, will explore how the emptying of our cities poses tough challenges for businesses and local authorities. But could this be a key to the revival of our local town centres and why focussing on community is the way forward? That's all to come on Long Story Short, the Future Cities podcast from Arcadis UK.


Emma Nelson [00:01:09] Welcome to a fresh series because like many things in life, we're refocusing in the wake of the huge changes the world is currently going through. Things are cautiously reopening. Societies are trying to reclaim a little normality. But the impact of the pandemic is profound, particularly in our towns and cities. The titans of the High Street, John Lewis. Boots, Pret a Manger, are all now shedding jobs or closing branches or both. Footfalls down, online is up. And with so many of us deciding against the commute to the big city, who's going to buy the sandwiches, the shoes and the shirts at lunchtime? And retail is just one part.


Emma Nelson [00:01:45] So to look at this and to try to beat at least the beginning of a path towards survival of our town centres and all they have to offer, I'm delighted to welcome David Jobling, a director at Arcadis UK. He works with councils to help them shape their town centres, and Bill Grimsey, one of the foremost retail leaders of the UK. But he now focuses on saving the High Street. And he has recently published his third report called Build Back Better, the COVID-19 Supplement.


Emma Nelson [00:02:13] Welcome to Long Story Short, gentlemen. Let me begin with you, David. Are you happy going into your town centres at the moment or are you still a bit nervous?


David Jobling [00:02:22] I think like a lot of people, I'm a little bit nervous, but getting more confident as I see the measures that local centres are taking to to make sure we can return them safely.


Emma Nelson [00:02:32] Bill, how about you? Do you go shopping? Do you spend time in your high street at the moment or are you still very much like many of us scuttling home as soon as the job's done?


Bill Grimsey [00:02:40] Well, I visit high streets and shops, but I'm very cautious and I do think we should get used to the new normal.


Emma Nelson [00:02:49] So tell us a little bit about where we found ourselves before lockdown. David, you in the past have said that much of the United Kingdom was chock full with what you've said is a bucket load of identikit high streets. We weren't in a good position before we began all this, were we?


David Jobling [00:03:05] No, not really. The years of big brands expanding onto every high street available meant that it was quite difficult often to tell the difference between what high street you were on from one day to the next if you travelled around the country. I think we were starting to see and Bill called as early as 2013, the death of retail in the form that we we knew it. What we've seen as COVID has landed is an acceleration of five or 10 years of closures. And the latest announcements from people like John Lewis closing what was a flagship store in Birmingham just emphasise the scale of transformation in a few short weeks or months.


Emma Nelson [00:03:44] And the effect, Bill, has been absolutely dramatic, hasn't it? This fast-paced closure. I don't know about you, but when I walk down even major high streets and town centres, you don't know which shops are ever going to open again. I mean, how long do you think it is going to be until we get the true impact of it COVID?


Bill Grimsey [00:04:05] Well, I think COVID is going to be blamed for many things as time goes by, but I don't think we can necessarily blame it for what's going on now in retail. What is for certain is just accelerated what was happening anyway and the demise of bricks and mortar retailer and the the national brands and the clone town Britain that me and my contemporaries throughout our career built, now need to be unpicked and replaced with something unique in every town centre and high street. We need unique places to attract people to live, work and play. And we need to work on the basis of their heritage and give them a reason for you to go there.


Emma Nelson [00:04:51] So from what you've just said there, you take some responsibility for these identikit high streets, then?


Bill Grimsey [00:04:57] I take total responsibility for several things. One is the clown town syndrome that David mentioned, the other is the use of world supply chains to bring to the UK products at any time of the day of the year. We deseasonalised fresh food throughout the late part of the last century, such that you can buy anything you like. And we helped to provoke the demise of the planet. So I think you're going to see a huge change, because climate change has not gone away. And when we get out the other side of COVID and we we realise that bricks and mortar retailing a place is so important, people are going to to probably say, well, I don't want French beans flown in from Kenya every day in a jumbo jet. So let's get back to seasonalised produce, local become the buzz word, and I think we're going to see a different world altogether. And what COVID has done is accelerate that.


Emma Nelson [00:05:53] Because David, 'local' became the buzz word, not because of choice, but because of absolute necessity. You were only allowed to go out for completely necessary journeys. And there was no possibility of travelling afield, was there?


David Jobling [00:06:06] No. And interestingly I think what I've seen and started to to hear from a number of councils, I work with, is it's some of our local high streets and local town centres that are actually recovering more quickly from the effects of COVID because people are staying local and starting to use the facilities that are there for them. And Bill touched on international supply chains. Interestingly, during the crisis, when you couldn't buy flour for love nor money in the major supermarkets, actually, if you went onto your local high street and found some of the corner shops, some of the specialist grocers, some of the ethnic supermarkets, actually they had flour. I went out and got lads of baking ingredients my wife wanted. And it was really easy to get them by staying local, shopping local and using those more reliable supply chains, perhaps linked to more local farms.


Emma Nelson [00:07:02] And it wasn't just the retail environment, was it Bill? When we found ourselves unable to go to work and everyone was told to work from home, the city centres just simply sort of lost all oxygen overnight didn't they?


Bill Grimsey [00:07:17] They have. And I think you're going to find that lots of companies are waking up to the fact that working from home has worked. It's perhaps not perfect but I'm really sure that there will be a blend of home working or staying in your local vacinity, which is actually an opportunity for the smaller rural towns, the places that are supplying cities with the workforce to actually create places where people can work, socialise and get what they need from their daily life and without commuting. So I think you'll find that firms will take a completely different view of the old head office and the world will change enormously, which again, will help climate change because there'll be less commuting.


Emma Nelson [00:08:04] David, what does this mean for city centres?


David Jobling [00:08:07] I think like town centre, city centres are going to need to reinvent themselves. They're going to need to establish their purpose and their role within an economic ecosystem. Now, city centres have grown and they exist in part because bringing people together, that collection and exchange of ideas is incredibly powerful. And whilst there will be digital means to do it, I don't think we'll ever get over the fact as humans, we're sociable animals and coming together and meeting people is going to be important. But just not at the scale we do it now. So there will be opportunities for cities to focus on cultural and leisure activities that perhaps there isn't the scale to offer in local towns, but they won't be the major office centres in terms of an economy that builds and relies on the volume of people coming in and out of cities on a daily basis that we've seen historically.


Emma Nelson [00:09:03] You're with Long Story Short, the podcast from Arcadis UK looking at the futures of our cities and our town centres today post-pandemic. Well office blocks are empty. Public transport is eerily quiet. Shops are closing. And working from home is now the preference for millions of us. But high streets and town centres are built on the concept of making money. So let's examine in more detail a couple of the real challenges, both short and long term. First, Bill, what is a town centre going to be for now? Why is it there?


Bill Grimsey [00:09:34] Well, I think in the past they've been places that have been predicated around a retail proposition. But in tomorrow's world, you're going to have to take a lot of boxes. What's going on for health? Where's the education? Where's the culture? Where's the extra housing? Where's the leisure? Where's the arts? Where's the craft? And I haven't mentioned the word shop yet, but that will still be in that list of boxes. So you need that ticked as well. And that's a long list of things and a whole host of challenges go around that to reinvent the places around all of those boxes and not just round the shop box.


Emma Nelson [00:10:13] David, let's look at a survey that Arcadis UK recently conducted with YouGov. About sixteen hundred people were asked what their priorities now are for our town centres in the future. And more than a third put health, new hospitals, good local surgeries right at the top of the list, closely followed by improvements to local areas such as building good schools and having libraries. It chimes whose Bill has just said there, but the government seems to be prioritising shopping and social life. Where does that leave everything?


David Jobling [00:10:47] I think it leaves you with local people pushing for things that perhaps don't align with immediate central government priorities, but which will emerge over time. So the government focus on town deals, for example, sees a hundred of the most challenged places from a town centre and high street perspective in the UK, given the opportunity to bid for 25 million pounds of funding each. Now, in the grand scheme of things and with the challenges high streets have got, that isn't going to solve their problems. But the interesting thing about that programme is it requires local support for the interventions that are proposed. And I think government might be quite surprised by how few of those link to some of their existing priorities and how focussed they are on some of the things Bill's just picked up on. The health agenda, the opportunity for people to live somewhere where they can actually enjoy living, green spaces, open spaces, skills, education and making places more inclusive economies for everyone.


 Emma Nelson [00:11:44] Bill, your report a few weeks ago led to several local authorities beating down your door saying, please come and help us. What do they want you to help them with?


 Bill Grimsey [00:11:53] Well, we called for localism on steroids, and that means central government has to facilitate that by the devolving power. And that's a big step for central government because they think it's their responsibility to try and fix these issues. And the fact is they can't. So when you talk to local authorities, they then say we can't do what we need to do because we don't have the powers to do them. So you've got this dilemma. So we've called upon leadership to step forward, to bang down doors and to make things happen by taking the total community with them. So it's localism steroids, great leaders, and then you'll move to a place which should be greener.


Bill Grimsey [00:12:32] But more importantly, we need to take the car out of the equation in a big way, because by 2040, we're not going to be taking cars in to town centres. So let's start thinking about that now. Let's not be obsessed with car park charges. Let's be obsessed with mobility in a different form, and we'll reinvent these places. But it will only happen if the local communities and the local authorities take charge of that. Central government cannot do it.


Emma Nelson [00:13:01] This is an issue, though, for a local authority, isn't it, David, that with the best will in the world, if you own a massive shopping centre, you can tell everybody who rents a space in your place what's going to happen and you can do what you like with that space. But if you have a high street and a town centre, you've got so many people who've got skin in the game and might not want the change. What issues do you encounter when you're dealing with local authorities?


David Jobling [00:13:26] So you're absolutely right. One of the biggest challenges is fragmented ownership. But local authorities are the only realistic custodians of place. They have to represent their local community and set out a vision for the future of that place that secures support across the board. That has to be a vision that isn't just a wonderful picture of a nice place to live, but has some thought about the economic and commercial side of it so that they can take wider stakeholders on the journey. So that community that they are reaching out to is not just the local people that live there, but it's the local businesses that exist now, but also will exist in the future.


David Jobling [00:14:00] I think there are some great examples of thriving, successful high streets in the UK and sometimes they're not always where you might expect to find them. So there are suburbs of Birmingham, like Sparkhill, for example, which economically no one would pick is a hugely successful place. But the high street there is focussed on its community and serving its community. That has 96 per cent independent businesses, in a 2016 survey, and a really low vacancy rate, the reason for that is that there are a load of services that the local community wants to access. And so the high street thrives. The role for local authorities is to understand that local community need, support the businesses that meet that community need, and help shape their high street. They're never going to be able to and never have the financial power or, despite what we might hope for, the political and policy power to completely shape the high street themselves. So it's got to be all about taking the community, taking a stakeholder and presenting a vision that meets their needs.


Emma Nelson [00:15:02] Bill, a couple of really big issues there that are clearly massive challenges. Financial power, political power. Local authorities don't have either at the minute, did they?


Bill Grimsey [00:15:12] No, but I think it's about what philosophy you're going to take forward. I mean, what we're talking about is moving away from a shareholder, capitalist society, which is consumer led to a stakeholder capitalist system where we're all working as a community on our local micro economies and where we're taking the whole product, not just a transaction called a shop, but what are we doing with our health, with our education, what are we producing, manufacturing? How is it working in that local area? And what can we do to attract people to live, work and play in these places and also visit because of our heritage? Now, if we start thinking about these places in that way and those leaders start to assume some authority and make things happen, as has been done in this country, Stockton-on-Tees is a classic example of an economically challenged area which is reshaping that place and doing dramatic changes to the places that have nothing to do just with shops but to do with everything we've been talking about during this podcast. And it can happen. But you need inspired leaders.


Emma Nelson [00:16:29] And David, it takes a lot of time to do all this, to plan to get everyone on board, to build. Time is something that we don't have much of at the moment, isn't it?


David Jobling [00:16:39] Indeed. There are a number of programmes now from both central and local government that are trying to move that pace to address issues that will take time. It's really important that as this transition happens, there are meanwhile uses identified. There are opportunities for new businesses to come in, pop up shops, interim uses. Again, that requires forward thinking leaders. That's not just about the council where they don't own assets. It's also about the partners, the current landowners. But the ability for local authorities to bring those people together quickly to drive forward to a common vision, but to have the long term in mind. And it's a really difficult balance. It's about what can you do now that stops a high street or a town centre from tipping over the edge to the point where it's impossible to save vs. not detracting from the ability to deliver a long term vision of a place to serve its community.


Emma Nelson [00:17:35] My guests on Long Story Short today are David Jobling from Arcadis UK and champion of the High Street, Bill Grimsby.


Emma Nelson [00:17:43] Well, let's look a little bit more at the long term now. Are we seeing decisions and changes being made that ordinarily wouldn't be seen as worth the risk? And does the crisis give the opportunity to build a fair, clean and green recovery for a next generation who've really felt the brunt of the virus?


Emma Nelson [00:17:59] Bill, several times today you've mentioned we need to be carbon neutral. We need to get rid of the car. How realistic is that now when we have people who are just desperate to get back to normal?


Bill Grimsey [00:18:11] Well, I think if you look at the younger generation that's growing up and then going to inherit the biggest debt since the Second World War, they're going to inherit a planet which is under serious threat. They really get it. And it's up to us as older leaders, if you like, to recognise that the high streets and town centres are symbolic representation of the community wellbeing.


Bill Grimsey [00:18:39] Yeah, if you look at a lot of these places, you've got shuttered up shops, you've got urban decay and blight in too many areas. And what we need to do is to say to ourselves, these places aren't lifting communities and strengthening their social capital, they're holding them back. And if we take these bold decisions today to have a vision for the future around the complex structure of society and community living, we will be able to create a catalyst for good health that we haven't seen for a very long time. And this is a huge challenge for us all. But the one thing that COVID has done is woken us all up. We're all smelling the fresh air, not the coffee. And we've all recognised that there's more to life than just that cheap T-shirt or buying another television. And I think we've going to capture that spirit and take it forward.


Emma Nelson [00:19:40] The language that's being used in this podcast is dynamic and it's brilliant. You just talked there Bill about capturing the spirit. And David, you've mentioned the idea of forward thinking leaders, people being bold, people having a vision. How do you make this happen when unfortunately we have to go back to this issue when you just don't have any money? When local councils have been overwhelmed with cuts and find themselves with no wriggle room at all.


David Jobling [00:20:06] So it's certainly not an easy problem to solve. I won't join Bill in completely castigating central government at this point. They are recognising the need to invest cash into this. Is it enough cash? Is it quick enough? Will it help enough people? It's a big question, but fundamentally, it's going to need local authorities to stand up and be the champions of their places. It's going to need local people to make some noise as well and have that passion for their place. And I think local authorities can inspire people with bold visions to get involved. It's also going to take, unfortunately, a number of economic shocks to the system. We can already see the impact on Intu. We can see other large shopping centre owners under pressure. That in itself will change the economic landscape. And as Bill said, we won't end up necessarily with that focus on consumerism that we've had in the past because there simply aren't the consumers there to sustain the high street in the way we have. That will, by its nature, create space for new ideas to grow. I know this is the bit where we're talking about looking forwards. But I think there's some great lessons we can learn from the past as we start to think about that. I often talk about the Victorian highstreet or town centre that served its economic geography, that functioned really well for the people that lived there and thinking about the balance of places in the future, I think we'll see smaller high streets and town centres, more people living around them and then responding to those people and their needs.


Emma Nelson [00:21:42] Bill, same question to you. What happens when you get these leaders of local authorities ringing you up and you inspire and you drive everybody towards these wonderful green pastures where everybody has this functioning, thriving town centre, but then they turn around and they say, Bill, I've got no budget.


Bill Grimsey [00:22:00] Well, I don't do money! I think it is the most restricting thing that we can possibly bring into the equation. Once you start thinking about what you can afford, you get what you can afford. And that's no good. We don't want to to think that way. We have to be very creative with our vision. We have to put something sensible together. And then you say, how do we go out and fund that?


Bill Grimsey [00:22:26] If we can sell this vision to communities and engage with local people, there are ways of raising money. And David's right by the way, central government has a role to play in helping some of that money move in that direction. But it's not just central government that will do it, but they've all got to play a role. But unless there's a vision there and a plan to build the best places, what's the point in throwing money at it, that's not going to change anything. So you don't start with money. You start with what are the challenges? What can we learn from the past? Where are we today? And how do we get to that future that is economically productive, works for the community and drives a great experience so you can enjoy your time on this planet.


David Jobling [00:23:11] This needs to be a conversation about value. And value is not just measured in cold, hard cash, it's measured in people's experience, health, life expectancy, impact on the planet. At the moment, at the most basic level, the measure of success and the measure of investment choices for public sector cash are driven by decisions that relate to value for money, not about value in its broadest sense. And one of the key things that's going to have to change if we're going to build successful high streets and town centres and places more generally is a focus on value in its broadest sense to society, not to the shareholders.


Emma Nelson [00:23:49] And David, when you are talking to local authority leaders and they're coming to you for advice, what are you suggesting that they should be doing? What's your fix?


David Jobling [00:23:57] Well, our fix is really to take advantage of the programmes that are out there from central government, maximise the impact they can have. But make sure, as Bill said, there is that long term vision that every step we take is a journey towards that and that you take local people with you and do things for your community in the broadest sense, not for shareholders and capital, because that's not going to be a long term solution.


Emma Nelson [00:24:25] David Jobling from Arcadis UK and Bill Grimsey, champion of the High Street. Thank you both very much for joining me today. Well, if you enjoyed that, then make sure you subscribe via the Arcadis UK website or wherever you get your podcasts. And there'll be more from this latest series on the revival of our cities very soon.


Emma Nelson [00:24:43] And look out for our next thought leadership report. It builds on the views we've heard today and sets out some priorities for greener, healthier and more inclusive recovery for our cities and towns. You've been with, Long Story Short, the Future Cities podcast from Arcadis UK.


Emma Nelson [00:25:01] I'm Emma Nelson. Goodbye. Thank you very much for listening.

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