Last week I had the pleasure of attending the launch of The Grimsey Review 2, an examination of the current and future environment for town centres five years on from the original report. With 2018 seeing an acceleration in the demise of many larger retailers – such as Toy’R’Us, Maplins, significant closures for House of Fraser, and so on – the review comes at an apposite time for reappraising the role and value of town centres for local places.
The review provides a strong overview and summary of the current environment and likely challenges of the future. With the impact of technology and the rise of out of town shopping venues, the authors argue that “the fundamental structure of Britain’s town centres has changed from goods transaction to one of consumption…and experiential services”. To back this claim, data is provided that shows while the number of banks, post offices and newsagents have significantly reduced, the number of cafes, beauty salons and barbers has risen. And while out of town retail parks continue to increase, the authors note that with the trends towards urbanisation, reduction in car ownership and experiential shopping “50% of the current retail park stock will become redundant by 2035”.
How, then, can localities adjust and adapt to this new landscape? In part, the report argues, by rising to three key challenges: harnessing the technological revolution through high street digital retail, rather than trying to counter it; recognising and maximising social elements of town centres as places for interaction and exchange; and embedding the political will to embrace change before it is too late.
There is a reassuring blend of high level strategic policy and more practical, on-the-ground examples of small changes that can make a big difference. For the former, the report argues that local and civic leadership is key – “new thinking, fresh leadership and ambitious initiatives need to be embraced,” and specifically with a nod to devolution, “the role of Mayors looks promising in helping to revitalise places”. In this analysis, the Grimsey Review 2 has many parallels with Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak’s The New Localism, an assessment of (mostly) American cities in their journeys towards 21st century wellbeing. As with Grimsey, these authors highlight strong local leadership, building on local heritage, and sharing information and knowledge across networks as keys to success. Grimsey also recommends repurposing the current Business Innovation Districts as Community Innovation Districts, with a broader, more encompassing approach to the whole range of issues and influences that affect a place – again echoing the examples Katz and Nowak provide of multi-sector collaborative leadership.
As for the detail, the review quotes examples from a diverse range of places including changes to parking charges, planning framework amendments, free public wifi, community hubs and tax incentives to affect change. From Stockton-on-Tees to Market Rasen to Roeselare in Flanders, there is much evidence of localities setting a vision and redefining themselves.
Clearly, redefining localities’ economic and social wellbeing is not a short-term game. The Grimsey Review 2 calls for 10 or even 20-year plans for town centres. Long term commitment to a vision requires non-partisan collaboration, consensus building, stability for institutions and a clear focus on outcomes. This will be even more crucial in the hardest hit places, where local industries, anchor institutions and public services will have been most denuded by the pre and post-financial crisis eras. How do we reconcile the need for stability and commitment with the ever-shortening political attention span, increasing demands from citizens, and the rapid pace of change? If a week is a long time in politics, what price a 10-year plan? But as Grimsey rightly points out, “unless drastic action is taken, things are going to get worse”, both in our town centres and beyond. While we continue to grapple with the mistakes and consequences of de-industrialisation, we cannot afford to fail in adapting and planning more strategically for the digital era. This is the challenge for us all.
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