Town Centre Recovery Post Covid

Town Centre Recovery Post Covid

August 2020


It’s generally agreed that we want people back in our town centres for them to recover. But should we start thinking a bit more closely who it is we want back?

Andrew Carter, writing in the MJ in early August, suggested that office workers were the lifeblood of city centre business and implored Councils to consider their actions to facilitate a return to collective working to help reinvigorate town centre retail and services. There will no doubt be demands for Councils to continue to offer low cost or free parking also. While Basildon has done just this; neighbouring Chelmsford has not.

The economic success of the town centre is intrinsically tied up and dominated by retail. Yet high street retail is contracting and we’ve known this for some time. Four years ago the British Retail Consortium issued its report “Retail 2020: Fewer but better jobs” (BRC, 2016). Sir Charlie Mayfield, then chairman foresaw “significant shop closures”, which would be very uneven across the country; areas that are economically fragile with weak demand would suffer the most. The Distressed Town Centre Property Taskforce, reporting back in 2013 forecast excess and inappropriate retail floorspace. Most significantly, The Javelin Group suggested that by 2020 the impact of declining in-store sales would result in a loss of 31% of High Street stores.

Pre-covid 19 the evidence was clear that there were more structural changes at play. The pandemic has accelerated and exacerbated this change and brought home the disconnect in many places between perceived retail land value and actual returns. 

So we perhaps should brace ourselves for shop closures of a notable scale. And given that this will not be a uniform affair, some High Streets in the weaker economic areas will be hit very hard. Some High Streets able to model themselves as higher-end destinations may find themselves less troubled by the rising costs of business or structural change. For some traditional shopping areas it will have a devastating impact. But as this goes on, we really must not let ourselves believe that this downturn and the fallout of these major changes is because the local council reintroduced parking charges. Nor that by offering some concessions on the rates or free parking after three it will save a sinking ship. If only it was that easy.

Shoppers choose where to shop because of the destination and the offer. This conclusion was established as far back as 1978 by Koppelman for a study of non-grocery destination choice in the US and has been supported by numerous commentators since. Let us think about some of the most fabulous places where we spend time shopping, eating and drinking. Kings Parade in Cambridge, The Shambles in York, The Golden Mile in Edinburgh, The Back Lanes in Brighton. All locations that are characteristically car-free in towns and cities that are certainly not bastions of easy car access nor low-cost parking.

So rather than chasing a diminishing market, offering concessions and lower costs in a vain attempt to steal market share, we would suggest towns and cities take bold steps to create the town and city centre that will work for the next twenty years.

Many Councils are already making these changes and have active plans to transform their centres. With the shape and form of a city centre economy reliant on retail shrinking, we would suggest there are three key themes to reconfiguring land use that are worth consideration. These are:

Consolidation of the Retail area. Identify your town or city jewel. Make the space human-scale, intimate, entertaining. Invest in the architecture and the space. Recognise also that other significant parts of the town may not be needed as retail any more. Identify where these are so that measures can be put in place to transition these areas, people’s livelihoods, effectively and successfully. But don’t avoid this issue; doing nothing will ensure all retailers verge on unviability and collapse catastrophically, one by one. Cut out the marginal to save the core.

Support change in marginalised areas. Acquire marginal areas of retail to facilitate new use and provide a financial bridge between old expectations of rent or value and those achievable in the near-term. Create space for new employment opportunities and housing consistent with a move to more people living and working in the city centre.

Rationalisation of space given over to car parking. Identify and release surplus parking capacity retained to service demand that occurs once a year on a peak Saturday before Christmas. Put this space to better use, all year round, to serve your communities. Providing homes provides customers who will visit and sustain the local shops. They will be loyal, consistent; buying goods and services in February as well as December. And as many who choose to live in the central areas won’t own cars, there won’t be the same need to chase them with subsidised parking charges.

Andew Potter is a Director at Parking Perspectives based in Chelmsford.



Beyond Retail. Redefining the shape and purpose of town centres. Distressed Town Centre Property Taskforce, 2013

British Retail Consortium, February 2016. “Retail 2020 Fewer but better jobs”

Javelin Group “Transforming the Retail Enterprise” presentation 3 May 2013 cited by Taskforce 2013

Koppelman 1978 “Destination Choice Behavior for Non-Grocery Shopping Trips” Tansport Research Record, No 673, Washington DC