Why town centres matter more now than ever

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Contact Tom Cartledge, CEO Handley House

UK town centres are in crisis. The rapid growth of online retail plus declining footfall on our high streets were causing problems long before the Covid-19 pandemic struck. But all is not lost. Here Handley House CEO Tom Cartledge explains why town centres matter and what all of us can do to bring them back to life.

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'It’s the ‘why’, the unifying vision, that’s critical to the future of our towns and cities. Because only through a clear, compelling vision can we tell a town’s story, communicate local qualities and characteristics, and create a strong perception of place.'

It’s hard to find many positives among the multiple challenges society has faced over the last 12 months. But being an optimist, I believe COVID-19 has at least forced us to readdress the future of our town centres. This is an opportunity we cannot afford to miss; but equally, when contemplating the UK’s urban spaces, we must not fall back into old habits of discussing the what’ and the how’, and not the why’.

Throughout history, we’ve seen the rise and fall of sectors, services and products. Take the UK seaside holiday industry; once thriving, now a shadow of its former self. But why did Skegness, Blackpool, Brighton, St Andrews and Salcombe all survive? They appeal to very different audiences, but that in itself is a clue. They survived because they understood why they existed and for whom; as a result, they created their own what’ and how’, and they continued to appeal.

It’s not that the UK didn’t go on holiday, far from it. But the shift to online booking and, of course, low-cost travel, created competition to which the entire UK holiday market failed to react. Sound familiar?

It’s the same with services. We use mobile phones more than ever before. But why no longer Ericsson or Blackberry? We still eat bread, but why no longer Mighty White (my personal favourite)? The question is, why do brands, products, or in the case of town centres, places’, exist? And how and what do they need to do to create the life and longevity they deserve?

Developing a unifying vision

Sometimes, the why’ is a singular person’s vision. The vision for Amazon came from Jeff Bezos. The vision for Teslar from Elon Musk. Likewise, Birmingham in the 2000s? Les Sparks. Modern-day Manchester? Howard Bernstein. As with global brands, communities, through engagement, can also create the why’. And it’s the why’, the unifying vision, that’s critical to the future of our towns and cities. Because only through a clear, compelling vision can we tell a town’s story, communicate local qualities and characteristics, and create a strong perception of place. 

Let’s consider Manchester City. For many years, Manchester City was the second club in Manchester. But the owner had a vision to exploit a gap in the market; a vision to create a global phenomenon. He leveraged the brand values of Manchester and football; and he spent vast sums of money creating a fast-flowing footballing side. And in doing so he created the what’: titles, a new global fan-base, new stadium, world-class training facilities, plus a football network spanning Australia and the US

But the what’ and the how’ flowed from the why’.

The great thing so many of our towns have, just like Manchester City, is fans. Loyal people who have decided to move to, stay in or be part of a particular place. Indeed, people and their choices, wishes and affiliations provide the foundations for the why’ – for brands, football clubs and town centres alike. 

Put simply, I believe the why’ of place is shaped by an emotion; it’s a feeling of experience. And people crave experience. When my family of four wakes on a Saturday morning, we decide what to do based on how we can fill our limited family time with the best possible experience. If local doesn’t appeal because it doesn’t offer the right experience, we won’t stay local. We’ll go to the next town, city or open space that offers the experience we need and want. 

Building successful town centres

So, if a town can create an appropriate experience or emotion, if it can define and communicate its why’, or its overarching and unifying vision, it’s got some chance of success. A designer’s masterplan can be full of great ideas. But are they relevant, sustainable and viable? Do they relate back to the experiences that need to be satisfied to create a successful community? 

To work, a masterplan must be wide-reaching; it must consider the customer – who they are, what they value, what they want. It must connect to the history and heritage of place and understand how to create the experiences people require. 

In Newark, Nottinghamshire, we’ve recently been involved in a major regeneration proposal. When we began, there were so many familiar problems: a fading high street; poor housing stock; limited choice and opportunity. But we saw that simply closing retail and building flats wasn’t going to address the why’. So we went to the people. We spoke with local businesses, residents, communities, schools. And after a long process of consultation and dialogue, we came to understand the unifying vision for change in our town: everyone in Newark deserves to be part of a successful community.

We understood that in Newark, in order to deliver our why’, our first how’ was to create ambition: ambition in education, ambition for children and young people, for their wellbeing, for the quality of spaces and experiences available. We then considered the what’ that would bring the how’ to life – the creation of new educational establishments, new reasons to visit, and new experiences that will grow our ambition as a town. 

Commercial viability is often challenged by underlying values and traditional measures of success. But in Newark, we are looking at success based on economics, social mobility and environmental sustainability, and wherever possible using council covenant or finances to support private sector engagement in the town. We know that if get the how’ and what’ working we will have more appropriate retail, more and better housing, more pride, more emotion, more loyalty and more success. And in this way, why’ of Newark will be realised. 

Over the past five years, we’ve been developing our own internal Handley House team and network of external supporters to help clients understand, articulate and achieve the why’ of place. We bring skills and people together to enable early involvement in the project lifecycle, ensuring that the unifying vision of place is carried through to completion. We’ve done it for Newark, and we continue to replicate this model the world over. 

Now is a fascinating time for the UK’s urban landscape. We must grasp this opportunity to stimulate urban renewal and regeneration, and deliver lasting social, economic and environmental value across our town centres. 

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