Just how do you encourage people back into town centres? Julie Froud has been studying how one Midlands shopping centre is trying to reinvent itself.
How to get people back enjoying our town centres is a debate that has been running for many years, especially since the coalition government commissioned retail consultant and broadcaster Mary Portas to review the state of the British high street in 2011.
Over the past year this task has also gained more urgency locally with the Mayor of Greater Manchester’s Town Centre Challenge, an initiative to regenerate urban centres across the city.
One of Portas’ key recommendations was to give communities a much greater say in how town centres are run, and it is precisely this theme that has underscored my recent research at York Place Shopping Centre in Newcastle-under-Lyme, near Stoke.
Situated in an area once famous for its huge coal and pottery industries, the town - like its neighbour Stoke-on-Trent – has been particularly hard-hit by industrial decline over the last 30 years or so. As well as seeing falling consumer demand, a significant portion of its retail base has also moved to out-of-town parks where shoppers can enjoy free parking and greater accessibility.
Battling against these headwinds, York Place has set about trying to reinvent itself as community destination and I recently began a research project looking at what the Centre has been doing. It’s a tough challenge for the Centre, not least because like many other towns Newcastle has insufficient people working, living or studying in its town centre to make it self-supporting.
As such the managers of the shopping centre realise that they have to provide a ‘certain something’ in order to attract local residents back in. In particular they see an opportunity to attract more independent retailers back to the Centre, an approach that has met with some success.
Deciding exactly what that ‘something’ you have is the key challenge for all our town centres. If you look across Greater Manchester you can see it in the success of somewhere like Altrincham which is now home to hugely popular markets which were redeveloped a few years ago.
The focus on community and involvement via ‘bottom-up’ thinking is certainly key. How exactly do you give a town centre more of a community focus? What specific activities do you need to be bringing into a town centre for young and old alike? And how do you make the whole project financially viable?
Quite a few local authorities have taken such questions into their own hands in recent years, buying up retail and office buildings with a view to redeveloping them. But in an era of continued austerity such an approach is not without risk, especially if having bought a building a local authority then finds it hasn’t got the resources to deliver a scheme.
Also, while buying up a building is one thing (and the dispersal of ownership of town centre properties can still pose huge challenges), actually knowing what to then do with it can be quite another. This is no longer simply about shopping centre management. These times we are living in call for a new way of looking at town centre redevelopment and call for entirely different skillsets.
Indeed it is no coincidence that these debates over the high street have coincided with the prolonged period of austerity that we have endured over the past decade. With many cash-struck councils unable to progress change, many residents have started taking things into their own hands to make things happen, forming community groups to come up with innovative ideas for their town centres.
I am particularly interested in looking at the general principles which could be applied to towns and secondary sites like Newcastle-under-Lyme. Part of the challenge is that every place is different, but there are some key principles that can guide regeneration. These include: getting buy-in from property owners (or regaining local control where owners are dispersed); providing more residential options in town centres to get people living and using urban spaces; building alliances of local interests; and supporting community-led initiatives, social enterprises and small businesses.
My ongoing work at York Place also ties in with our wider research into the importance of the foundational economy, namely those parts of the economy which provide the very basic goods and services that are at the foundation of everyday life.
Put simply it is about thinking about these centres as part of the social infrastructure of a place. Thinking about the importance of sustaining them through new uses that contribute to a financially viable and socially relevant model.