The Town Centre Formula?

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Julian King


Julian King


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With the average national retail vacancy rate currently standing at 11.2%, how can retailers harness the power of the current disruptive forces to help change the face of the town centre for future generations? With the millennial exodus to the metropolis gathering pace Julian King, Partner, National Head of Retail at RLB UK says retail professionals need to be inventive, opportunistic and bold if they are to use the forces of change for good. Following from the Welsh Retail and Leisure Summit in Cardiff, here’s his To Do List of making change progressive and effective.

1. Place Making

The evolution of place caused by retail revolution seems to all who are watching from the side lines to be negative and accelerating, but behind the scenes good things are happening.

Following successful early leads from towns like Bolton and Kingston, council leaders are beginning to see a return on their investment in hiring ‘place makers’ from professional disciplines who support and develop local policy and direction to form a cohesive masterplan and road map for regeneration.

The next part of the jigsaw is collaborative partnerships with developers with local needs at the heart. At RLB we are seeing a host of funding options for innovative schemes that are surfacing for some of the most historic yet deprived locations.

Investment by the community for the community is the priority for long term sustainable town centres. Handing power to local businesses, BIDs and community leaders, all of who want their say is having an effect, and we are seeing them actively participate in the regeneration and sustainability of their towns. However, a balance will need to be found between public and private and the new commerciality of this regeneration is driving funds and banks to actively seek a part in these exciting transformations.

2. Condense

According to Chris Fowler of The Local Data Company hosting the summit, 40% of all retail vacancies have been empty for over three years telling us loudly that change is required. Persistent vacancy leads to a sense of areas being blighted and with this in mind local authorities and developers are fast realising in a changing world that the answer to the housing crisis may be on our own doorstep. With the changing face of town centre retail, the opportunity exists to revisit the needs of communities for decades to come. The surplus and persistently vacant space can be freed up for alternative use such as housing or leisure and consequently bring new life and people back to town creating thriving urban environments.

Much of town centre’s retail space is spread out over vast areas adding to the urban sprawl. Retail thrives in vibrant spaces where people can be entertained, work and shop within a stone’s throw of their living space. Ultra-convenience is the new catchphrase in urban design. Simon Boston of Developer Loftco rightly suggests it is time for courage and bold use of CPOs to address some of the regional town centre decline by condensing into the most historic and vibrant areas, leaving outdated and underutilised space to be repurposed for living, working and other community use. This is not a green light to tear down historical parts of town and throw up new build housing, but an invitation to re-use and build complementary spaces to enhance and re-build communities.

3. Live/Work Multiuse

Start-ups, incubators and accelerators have long led the way in cool and funky spaces; in fact, they have started a revolution. City and town live/work spaces in converted cool environments are now at a premium and developments such as Cardiff’s Tram shed by Loftco prove that they also attract the brightest and boldest talent creating new and innovative reputations for struggling town centres. This in turn attracts investment, creativity and most of all pride from the local population supporting future local growth and positive community development.

4. Healthy Environments

In order to create future value landlords and local authorities will need to join forces to develop scheme designs to an environmental, health and wellness remit. Far from a trend, the healthy built environment is fast becoming a prerequisite in new developments and refits, driven by higher expectations from customers.

The market is seeing huge “lettability” advantages for landlords, with retail tenants seeing up to a threefold increase in sales in schemes with a focus on an environmental, health and wellness remit.

Studies have found that Millennials are moving to metropolitan areas at high rates. They form a large proportion of the population and have new values and a new outlook. They are driving the trend towards “ultra-convenience” and “walkable” retail, but as an unexpected result we now see older generations and retirement communities looking to move to vibrant locations where walkable retail environments will drive large economic returns.

5. Customer Experience at the Heart

Unremarkable retail and highly deliverable products have shifted the landscape in retail with commodity buying mostly moving online where those focused on seeking out the lowest price and maximum convenience can make hay.

However, five out of six purchases are still done in a physical store location. Real shopping is a social activity and the role of physical stores and customer service is essential. Developments and schemes are beginning to emerge from the most determined regional zones who are willing to be creative and invest in experience, environment and convenience with the aim of attracting higher value longer lasting retail tenants that add vibrancy to their towns.

6. Niche

Capitalise on what you’ve got; many towns are not making the most of their heritage, and location. Experience, destination and niche needs support from good infrastructure connections and the car needs to be tamed to make way for pavement cafes, green space and entertainment. Fabulous existing environments are sometimes over looked, professional eyes can see a world of possibilities, the need for innovation is now.

7. Policy

All big ideas need top down support, and when we are talking town centres this means policy. Local structure plans need to change and planners need to balance the ever increasing requirement for out of town space that will reduce opportunities for Town Centres, policy is therefore required.

The exodus of young people from regional centres is a massive drain on communities and uncertainty particularly over housing will only add to pressures on millennials to seek higher pay and bigger opportunities in the big cities. Exciting future plans are not enough on their own, communication of these plans will be key to encouraging entrepreneurship, confidence and pride.

Big policy decisions will drive big opportunity. At a recent Summit, Beverly Owen, Director of Place at Newport City Council was brimming with excitement over the government’s decision to remove the Severn Bridge toll charge on the M4 by the end of 2018. This will massively aid the development of Newport with somewhere close to 25 million journeys right on her doorstep benefiting from this strategic policy change. Beverly has experienced first-hand how these decisions drive confidence and investment that will help her deliver on some really bold plans for the town starting with the Friars Walk Shopping Centre below.


The seismic shift to online shopping may in the end be the saviour of our town centres. It requires however a seismic shift in our thinking and a new community based town centre to emerge but I am confident that those of us who spend our lives improving and innovating in the built environment will find the right solution; the journey is certainly underway.