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Town Centres: A once in a generation chance to change

  • United Kingdom
  • Real estate

17-08-2020

For the last decade, retail has been wracked by fundamental and irreversible change: rising vacancy rates, business failures, rental default, and falling asset values. COVID 19 has accelerated and intensified these trends, with the enforced closure of retail and leisure businesses, and restrictions that will be in place for some time. The viability and vitality of many of the UK’s town centres is under real and sustained threat. Positive and urgent action is needed now.

Existing asset owners and investors must work on rebuilding retail and leisure footfall; in some cases they will need to completely repurpose or redevelop their buildings. Alongside this, local authorities must be proactive and take the lead in re-invigorating and re-imagining our town centres so that they can thrive again.

It is a huge issue. So, to ask a question that Lenin made famous, what is to be done?

The answer may lie in another ongoing crisis – our chronic housing shortage.

We need to look at the UK’s town centre and housing crises as one crisis. If we do, we have a once in a generation opportunity for the public and private sectors to combine to re-shape and repurpose our town centres to solve both crises simultaneously.

As we do so, we need to re-think dramatically what we want our town centres to be, but one thing is certain – residential must play a major role. The key will be to plan our centres so that retail, leisure and housing can sit together in high quality settings and in an inclusive and sustainable way.

The task should not be underestimated. The challenges are manifold – from developing a deliverable and comprehensive masterplan, through to ensuring that the development and its initiatives are viable, to the management of the finished product. And, not forgetting, funding the development and delivering key infrastructure to budget and on time.

The range of issues that we are currently helping clients with speaks for itself:

  • Putting in place masterplans and policy to guide and pull together projects in a co-ordinated manner so as to maximise the public benefit and lay a firm basis for development;
  • Land assembly, CPO and overcoming impediments to development such as rights of light, covenants, easements;
  • Dealing with viability challenges and finding innovative solutions, which might include infrastructure funding, or leveraging avenues of public support and funding to unlock schemes; and
  • Working up appropriate and tax-efficient delivery structures for the partnership between various stakeholders, so that they can work together efficiently. Structures of course vary on a scheme by scheme basis, depending on the project and its participants, with advice always needed on public procurement and state aid compliance.
By accelerating and intensifying long term trends, COVID-19 has brought our town centres to a place of deep adversity, but from it there is an opportunity to deliver a generational step-change in the purpose and shape of our town centres. We must take this chance to create newly imagined town centres that can provide the combined solution to the UK’s retail and housing challenges.