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What's next for high streets

26th March 2012

By Rob Cowan

Mary Portas does not like red tape. She says so in her welcome review of the future of high streets. Of course no one likes red tape, if you define it as (in the words of The Dictionary of Urbanism) ‘excessive bureaucracy, or unacceptable rules and regulations’. But what is unwelcome to the person who is prevented from doing something may be very welcome to someone else who would otherwise have to live with the consequences.

Red tape is rife on the high street,’ Portas writes. She cites ‘unnecessary bureaucracy around… delivery restrictions.’ The problem is that we are trying to deal with conflicts of interest. Shopkeepers might like to be able to accept deliveries at any time of the day, whereas others may prefer to keep the streets delivery-free at certain times in the interests of creating a pleasant place to be in. ‘Businesses big and small have told me that restrictions, such as restrictions on night-time deliveries and noise, are an issue for them trading in town,’ Portas writes. ‘Too often the voice of the few inhibits the ambitions of our businesses.’ Perhaps, but someone has to balance the interests of businesses and those of local residents who are trying to sleep. Rules and regulations certainly need to be kept under review, but dismissing ones you do not like as ‘red tape’ does not help.

‘One of the biggest unnecessary restrictions on business,’ Portas writes, ‘seems to be the use class system, which makes it difficult for buildings to have different uses and to change uses.’ But later on she calls for betting shops to have their own use class, so that their numbers can be more effectively controlled. It seems that is not the use class system itself that is the problem, but some details of it. She also writes that ‘too many fried chicken shops have the same effect’ [of blighting high streets], but she does not say whether they need to be in a use class of their own.

Portas calls for the ‘town teams’ that she proposes to have the power to decide the appropriate mix of shops and services for their area. ‘Anything which doesn’t meet the agreed plan simply wouldn’t be able to go ahead,’ she writes. ‘They would know, for example, that too many of one type of shop might blight the street. The feel and future of their towns will be the responsibility of all, rather than at the sole discretion of a planning executive committee.’ So it seems that the issue is not whether there are regulations, but rather who makes them.

Making these issues ‘the responsibility of all’ is an attractive prospect, but it’s quite a challenge. Those decisions determine how people can conduct their business, and the public impact those businesses have. The difficulty of taking such decisions democratically and transparently is why we have such things as planning committees.

The French example that Portas cites as a case study does not sound much lighter on its feet, consisting as it does of the following: five locally elected persons; the mayor of the relevant community; the president of the intercommunity urbanisation committee; the mayor of the community with the highest number of inhabitants in the region; the president of the local council; the president of the public organisation responsible for territorial cohesion which the commune adheres to; and three persons qualified or competent in consumer issues, sustainable development and territorial planning.

There is usually a balance to be achieved between active public participation on the one hand and full representativeness on the other. A local authority provides a formal structure for representativeness, and that structure will survive whatever happens. Some other structures through which people become directly involved in local affairs may be less robust: after a while they may collapse through a breakdown of trust or failure to resolve conflicts. But such structures are often extremely valuable in bringing about real change through wide collaboration. The risk of breakdown is sometimes worth taking.   

Experimenting with town teams

 Mary Portas calls for a series of pilot projects led by town teams. To illustrate the sorts of projects she has in mind, she suggests places for town teams to operate from; public contributions to a ‘community chest’; online presences for high streets; high street loyalty cards; a national market day; high street places to collect goods ordered online; high street shops offering other services; and using vacant high street premises for start-ups and as hubs for people working from home.

These are all good ideas. Probably all of them have been tried, and they should be tried again. But it would also be good to experiment with different models of the town team so that we can find out what works. The town teams that Urban Design Skills, working with Professor Alan Simpson, has helped to set up in Neilston (East Renfrewshire), Harlesden (London Borough of Brent) (both of these focused on a high street) and York (introducing citywide concepts of streets and spaces) may provide one useful model (see www.urbandesignskills.com/ourservices/place-planner). Those three town teams work closely with their local authorities and have councillors among their members, but they are themselves to some degree informal. They consist of people who are committed to working for the future of the area. The town teams are as strong as those people are committed, and the teams’ effectiveness depends on their members trusting each other. These town teams are like marriages: they may be to some extent precarious, but when they work they can be the basis for making great things happen. Institutionalising them too much may risk killing the magic.

The town team pilot projects that Portas calls for should try out combinations of variables. These might include how the initiative is funded or supported; how formally representative the team is; how it relates to the parish or district council; whether or not it is related to a neighbourhood planning initiative or a business improvement district; how it is led; and how it operates.

Which comes first, economic or social capital?

 If we all liked high streets as much as we say we do, they would not be suffering such rapid decline. The problem is that, when we get spending, rather than just browsing, most of us seem to value parking, home delivery and apparently low prices more than conviviality. Mary Portas, who loves high streets, has a shop in the high-street-draining Bluewater shopping centre in Kent. Fair enough: you can not expect her to buck economic trends. She herself does not see economics leading the high streets out of their decline. ‘Once we invest in and create social capital in the heart of our communities,’ she writes, ‘the economic capital will follow.’  

High streets have been hit by the recession, by the growth of online retailing, by the rise of mobile retailing, by technologically enabled socialising and by the new generation of shopping malls and other forms of out-of-town shopping, among much else. Portas wants to see high streets ‘re-imagined as destinations for socialising, culture, health, wellbeing, creativity and learning.’ They should become places that will develop and sustain new and existing markets and businesses. ‘The new high streets won’t just be about selling goods,’ she writes. ‘The mix will include shops but could also include housing, offices, sport, schools or other social, commercial and cultural enterprises and meeting places. They should become places where we go to engage with other people in our communities, where shopping is just one small part of a rich mix of activities.’ Traditionally, though, the high street was driven by economic activity, which depended on the footfall that only a high street could offer.

‘Re-imagined’ is the word Portas used. It is an unfamiliar term, but the supplement to The Dictionary of Urbanism reminds us that Paul Finch, the then interim chairman of CABE, used it in his foreword to the commission’s 2003/04 annual report. Elected members, planners and housing professionals, among others, needed to be helped ‘to think again about their role’, Finch wrote. ‘We all need to re-imagine ourselves as a body of professionals before we can re-imagine the buildings and spaces where we live and work’.

Pilot projects

So re-inventing high streets is not just the job of urban designers, planners, architects, highway engineers, community development workers, councillors or any one else alone. We need to find new ways of working together. Piloting a variety of forms of town team would be a good place to start. As well as trying out the combinations of variables suggested above, the teams should focus on some of the big questions about the future of high streets. Recognising that the one thing we do know is that we know very little about what the future holds, we need to ask: how can we make high streets more adaptable to change? For example, if shops are being converted to housing, can we do it in a way that would enable them to be used as shops again when higher petrol prices persuade us to shop on foot? Re-imagining a high street will begin by understanding why it grew there in the first place. What was it about the topography, the patterns of movement or anything else that brought people together? How can those local conditions be exploited to bring people together today?

The Portas Review records that the UK has more than 5,400 places named ‘High Street’, and that many other high streets exist in everything but name. But many places that are called ‘High Street’, and many that once performed that role, are a pale shadow of what they used to be. And many communities that have been built in recent years have never had a place that is anything like a high street.  

New concepts

As well as trying different approaches to town teams, the pilot projects that Mary Portas suggests could develop new concepts of high street. Many people like shopping online for the things that they would once have bought on the high street. Some high streets still offer a wonderful range of goods, but people find Ocado more convenient. Instead of having to converse with a whole range of shopkeepers, the man from Ocado comes in, says ‘where shall I put the bags’, you point to the kitchen floor and say ‘just there please’, and that’s the communication over. So why don’t we use the internet to provide as much information as possible about a high street – the extraordinarily diverse Uxbridge Road in Ealing would be a good one to choose as a pilot – and to coordinate its services and its retail offer? For such a project the main role of the town team might be to create confidence, building the high street as a brand.

The issue of the day is the future of high streets – or it was in the moment a few weeks ago when the Portas Review was in the news. But it is a bigger question than that. How can we create places that we like when so much that we do leads to the destruction of the qualities that we look for – in the sort of places we visit on holiday, for example? We like places with a mix of uses – commercial, civic, residential and social; places that attract people, places that are pleasant to walk or cycle in, and that are easy to get to by public transport. They are probably places that concentrate movement and enclose space. They may consist of streets that are connected at each end to other streets, and that are connected to other spaces. They are pleasant, safe and uncluttered places.

Urban designers spend their time trying to create such places through manipulating the physical form of buildings and spaces. But many of the solutions lie elsewhere. Much about how we live today makes it very difficult to maintain such places or to create new ones, whether in high streets, in residential areas or anywhere else. High streets are dying because our way of life no longer supports them. That is not all: our planet is in danger of dying because our consumption of its resources and our emission of carbon is no longer sustainable.

Finding new ways of living will involve new ways of adapting towns and cities – and in particular the suburbs where most people in the developed world live. What sort of places will make the most of the uncertain, changing circumstances that we find ourselves in? The answer may be: places that look very much like the high streets that we are so successfully killing off. Reviving the high street may turn out to be, not swimming against the economic and social tide, but taking the first step in creating a future that works.

The next step

Let’s design a series of pilot projects based on a combination of the following:

1.       A range of different approaches to running a town team, such as how the initiative is funded or supported; how formally representative the team is; how it relates to the parish or district council; whether or not it is related to a neighbourhood planning initiative or a business improvement district; how it is led; and how it operates.

2.       A range of concepts of what a high street might be in a world that has seen dramatic growth of online retailing, mobile retailing, technologically enabled socialising, and a new generation of shopping malls and other forms of out-of-town and car-borne shopping. Such concepts may include new ways of providing destinations for socialising, culture, health, wellbeing, creativity and learning. One or more of the concepts should be based on an experiment in make a diverse high street or town centre accessible by the internet. The concepts would also focus on new ways of creating confidence and building the high street as a brand, and new ways of creating a low carbon economy.

3.       A range of different types of high street: in cities, small towns and rural villages.

 4.       A range of different types of struggling high streets including traditional ones and ethnically diverse ones.

5.       A neighbourhood planning initiative incorporating a high street.

 The town team experience: two case studies

 1.               Harlesden Town Team

The efforts of the town team in Harlesden, north London, have led to Transport for London allocating nearly £4 million to improve the traffic-dominated town centre, based on Harlesden High Street. Working with Brent Council, the community has published a charter setting out how they want to see the area improved. One of London’s liveliest town centres and home to a rich mix of communities, Harlesden suffers badly from traffic. The Harlesden Charter presents a vision of how the place could be humanised through a series of achievable projects. This is neighbourhood planning at its best, though not on quite the lines as set out in the Localism Act 2011.  

Leroy Simpson, chair of the Harlesden Town Team, which drew up the charter, said: ‘This is brilliant news from Transport for London. Decision after decision over the years have led to increases in high street traffic and an unhealthy environment. No one would design a town centre this way. The charter sets out our priorities, and the people of Harlesden are working together to achieve them.’

Louis Theroux, the broadcaster, has been chosen as Harlesden’s town champion. ‘I’ve lived in Harlesden nearly 10 years,’ Theroux says. ‘In so many ways it is a wonderful place, full of energy and life. But it isn’t living up to its potential. The roads are decaying, the buildings are dilapidated; some of the finest buildings are derelict. We have five or six communities existing side by side, which don’t really speak to each other. We are besieged by a constant flow of traffic. Working together we can tame the traffic, create new public spaces, care better for our buildings and streets, and promote a sense of community. The town charter and the town team are a chance to do all that.’

The process of drawing up the Harlesden Charter has been supported by the London Borough of Brent and Transport for London. This is a new approach, facilitated by the urban designers Urban Design Skills. The Harlesden Town Team, a group of committed and widely representative local people and stakeholders, was formed to create the vision and drive it forward with Brent Council. The charter’s 5–10 year action plan was developed through a series of community meetings and workshop events. The team will remain open to all who have an interest in the future of Harlesden.

The Harlesden project was runner up (to the Boris bikes scheme) in the Transport London awards of the best transport-related initiative.

More details: www.urbandesignskills.com/ourservices/place-planner

 2.               Neilston Town Team

Neilston is an ordinary sort of place: a village with a handful of shops and a high street (called Main Street) running through it. The local community had long wanted to improve the place but it had not been confident that development was what was needed. The Scottish Renaissance Towns Initiative, supported by East Renfrewshire District Council, the Scottish Government and Architecture and Design Scotland, and with Urban Design Skills as consultants, led to local people collaborating in a structured process of planning the village’s future. A town team was formed to develop the vision and implement change. This has not been called neighbourhood planning (a phrase that is little used in Scotland) but that is what it is. The experience has led to local support for development, as long as the community has a part in planning it. The community has entered a lucrative formal partnership with a wind turbine developer, and is supporting housing development that will consolidate the village’s structure and bring life to Main Street.

Neilston is a village or small town just outside the Glasgow conurbation. The population is around 5,000 people. From the eighteenth to early twentieth centuries Neilston was a mill village – the enormous mill complex remains, little used but with great potential. Today Neilston is mainly a commuter village. It also has a well-known annual agricultural show.

The process in Neilston focuses on, first, a town team (a group of local people – open to all – who take responsibility for a place’s strategic planning) and, second, a town charter (a statement, agreed by the people who have a stake in the town, of the principles and aspirations that should guide its future development and improvement – this is a new sense of the term: traditionally a town charter was a legal document establishing a municipality). The Neilston town team consisted of residents, local business people and councillors. An expert panel of community facilitators, designers, sustainability advisors, transport and public realm advisors and planners worked with the town team, sharing knowledge on technical issues. The aim was to build the local community’s confidence and capability to champion positive change, and to promote high standards of design and management.

The charter for Neilston was developed over a nine-month period. One of the first activities was to issue all households with a postcard and a red ribbon, which each resident being asked to it tie to their favourite place. This created a visual representation of what was valued in the village. This was followed by a series of meetings, walkabouts and informal discussions. Parallel youth sessions allowed younger people to say what they wanted for Neilston. The charter was developed through a series of regular community meetings, workshops, presentations and a two-and-a-half day town charrette. These events were open to everyone: a total of 120 local residents and stakeholders were involved. Anyone interested in being part of the process was welcome to join the town team. Six town team meetings were held to develop the long-term vision for Neilston. A series of sub-groups focused on young people’s involvement; economic development; open spaces and places; movement and accessibility; sustainability; and heritage and appearance.

The town charrette was held: during this event the entire village was invited to participate in walks and workshops to help define the vision for Neilston and a series of practical projects. The projects focused on improving streets and spaces as places for people to meet and interact; promoting community development and civic leadership; protecting the countryside; promoting recreation; promoting green economic growth (businesses and retail); improving connections beyond the village; improving education and skills; retaining and enhancing community facilities; making better use of underused and gap sites, with sensitive infill development.

The first of the projects are underway. Most notably, the community has entered a formal partnership with a wind turbine developer, and is supporting housing development that will consolidate the village’s structure and bring life to Main Street. The wind turbine development will create a continuous stream of income which will support further projects.

The Neilston project has been awarded first prize in the community involvement category of the Scottish Awards for Quality in Planning.

 More details: www.urbandesignskills.com/ourservices/place-planner

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