Context 138 - March 2015

12 C O N T E X T 1 3 8 : M A R C H 2 0 1 5 TIM BRENNAN The changing face of the high street Changing shopping patterns and the rise of online retailing, combined with the prolonged economic downturn, are changing people’s perceptions of what town centres are for. Recent years have seen a fluctuation in fortunes for the health of historic high streets and town centres, and variations in the issues facing them. English Heritage published Retail Development in Historic Areas in 2005, at a time when the economy was relatively buoyant and market conditions were creating demand for more retail floorspace across the country. The consequent development was often creating pressure on the historic environment and threatening long-established local character.The publication offered advice to developers and planners in how and where to accommodate this extra floorspace. It identified a number of case studies where collaboration between those involved had created successful, attractive and distinctive retail environments. In the period since 2005, the issues that we have all become familiar with have taken their toll on the vitality and health of historic town centres. Out-of-town retail sites, changing shopping patterns and the inexorable rise of online retailing, combined with the prolonged economic downturn, have all had significant implications for footfall and vacancy rates.Add in the rising numbers of buildings such as pubs, post offices and banks that have ceased to be used for their original purpose, and we have seen many historic town centres and high streets struggling to retain a sense of purpose with declining numbers of trading shops, dwindling numbers of shop- pers and a decline in the quality of the environment. The changing way in which shoppers and communities use town centres clearly needed to be reflected in any updated publication. In early 2013 English Heritage commissioned Allies and Morrison Urban Practitioners to undertake research into retail and town centre trends and their implications for historic places.The resulting report, The Changing Face of the High Street ,was published in July 2013. Unsurprisingly, the research did not uncover a heritage magic bullet to address all the challenges facing the high street, but it did identify a series of case studies where imaginative approaches had used local heritage to address relevant issues with some success. Some of these are relatively well known to the heritage sector, either in terms of how new retail development has been integrated with the surrounding historic centre (Liverpool One, Princesshay) or how existing historic character and heritage assets have formed a central component to area-based regeneration works (Whitstable). Others have perhaps a lesser profile – such as the successful reinvention of the listed Brixton market into a hub for world cuisine or street food, or the multi- faceted approach taken by Rotherham Council to its high street issues, including refurbishing and bringing back into retail use the historic Imperial Arcade building. Taken together, the report and its case studies dem- onstrate a number of points, such as the permanence of the structural change that the retail sector (and therefore historic high streets and town centres) are continuing to go through, and the rise of leisure and restaurant uses over recent years. They also show that, with proactive forward planning, there can be cause for optimism with regard to the historic environment. The trend of polarisation of locations is increasingly apparent, with shoppers being prepared to travel further and stay longer in retail destinations that offer a wider range of shops and facilities that create more of an experience.This clearly favours larger conurbations with bigger catchment areas, particularly as many larger retail firms rationalise their property portfolio. But several of the case studies in the report help demonstrate that successfully differentiating a location from its neighbours (accentuating the unique selling point) by utilising the local historic environment can help establish competitive advantage. While partly due to the economic slow-down, there has also been an observable trend towards street-based retail schemes in recent years, and away from the culture of shopping centres or malls. While in some senses this is a win for the historic environment, leading to opportunities for retaining historic street patterns and enabling new development to better respond to the existing urban grain, in others it represents the Steep Hill, Lincoln: today shoppers are prepared to travel further and stay longer in retail destinations that offer a wider range of shops and facilities that create more of an experience. (Photo: English Heritage)