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Unlocking our high streets - the need for a clear vision

By Elizabeth Wrigley, owner of planning and communications consultancy Core Connections Ltd

One of the advantages of the lockdown was discovering how to shop locally as we worked from home, but has lockdown led to two trends being deepened: a strong preference for at least some working from home by employees, and an acceleration in the decline of physical shopping in favour of on-line purchasing?

Core Connections Ltd recently hosted a video session with three experts: Tim O’Callaghan of Nimtim Architects, developer Trevor McClymont of Respublica Partners and Ktesius, and architect Alistair Barr of Barr Gazetas, to discuss these issues.

We suggest that effectively two kinds of high street are emerging in cities. First, ones near to homes where walking and cycling can easily be accommodated and where there has been an increase in use, and secondly in city centre clusters.

The larger shops in town and city centres that need a bus, train or car trip to reach have been eerily empty recently, and their shops sell goods that are increasingly available on-line. Will customers return to these stores any time soon? 

We explored two examples of bringing new uses into failing high street spaces. One is a disused cinema, converted by Ktesius in Brighton into housing with a foyer on street level with public access, reflecting some of the qualities the original cinema foyer would have had. The second example is the closed BHS store on Oxford Street, where the rear half has become a food hall, and provides a valuable location for local workers and shoppers to lunch. 

Of course neither of these examples fits into the neat use class typology of the planning system. Both needed strong willed entrepreneurs with vision to push the boundaries. The Peckham multi-storey car park, now also functioning as a mix of bars, restaurants, art galleries, yoga studios and workshops, is another maverick project, but is exactly what our High Street needs to kick start it back into life now the chain store identikit model across the country is failing.

What is essential is for the developer of a difficult high street site to have a vision.

The external environment in the neighbourhoods of our homes will need to be attractive too, enabling the walks and cycle rides to be pleasant experiences. Experimental street closures now happening to enable social distancing until we have a clearer way to manage our environments, provides hope that this is possible. And we must plan for potential pandemic situations in the future. We hope some of these experiments will emerge as being so valuable to the commercial businesses that they become permanent.

Not everyone can find the space and conditions to work from home, and undoubtedly future housing will need to design space to recognise this.  However, what about young workers living in small sized rented accommodation? Could vacant units in local high streets near to homes be used as alternative venues for ‘working at home’ to avoid the commute. Empty space above shops could be used in this way too.  Flexibility in the designation of allowable high street land uses would help, changing the emphasis on retail as the must-have core central use. More diversity in the use of buildings in the heart of town and city centres would attract footfall and support shops. 

Elizabeth Wrigley

Elizabeth has run the planning and communications consultancy Core Connections Ltd. since 2004, following a stint managing a town centre regeneration programme called Centre Vision and starting the assessment tool Building for Life for the Civic Trust Regeneration Unit and CABE. Elizabeth has degrees in Physics, Economics and Ecology, and studied urban design at Oxford Brookes University.  She has an MBA from Cass Business School London and is a Fellow of the RSA. She has worked in planning and asset management for several local authorities and was one of the planners in YRM Architects & Planners in the 1990s.     

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