The High Street Report: recommendations of the Panel chaired by Sir John Timpson

The summer saw both the publication of The Grimsey Review 2 (Grimsey2) and the government establish the High Streets Expert Panel (Panel) to diagnose the issues facing high streets and town centres.

With the Budget delivered in this autumn government responded to a number of the barriers to progress identified in Grimsey2. It published 'Our Plan for the High Street' (Plan) and announced the reduction of business rates for smaller shops from April 2019 for two years.

The Plan includes £675m for local areas to develop and fund plans to make their high streets and town centres in England 'fit for the future' (Future High Streets Fund). It will be applied for town centre infrastructure including to increase access to high streets and to support redevelopment and densification around high streets. In addition a new Taskforce would disseminate best practice, support local leadership and channel funding to strengthen community assets, including the restoration of historic buildings on high streets.

Published alongside the Budget was the consultation 'Planning reform: supporting the high street and increasing the delivery of new homes'. For the high street this proposes a more flexible and responsive change of use regime with new Permitted Development Rights to make it easier to establish new mixed-use business models. The consultation runs until 14 January 2019.

The end of 2018 sees the publication of the government commissioned Report by the High Streets Expert Panel (Panel). The Panel worked closely with MHCLG, the Future High Streets Forum and the Institute of Place Management. A series of six evidence sessions were held in a range of locations, including Bristol. The Panel also draws on the submissions to the Select Committee Inquiry into High Streets and Town Centres in 2030 and the Grimsey reviews. The gathered evidence now informs the Panel recommendations set out in 'The High Street Report', 20 December 2018 (Report).

The recommendations

Recommendations for the Town Centre Task Force are it should provide a single voice for town centres and to be an enabler and facilitator for local 'champions'. It should become the go to place for best practice and innovative examples related to revitalising towns. It should be a route through which to build the capacity of local areas for active, collaborative place-making. The Task Force should also boost local authority capacity to enable planning to support local areas and stakeholders to design effective and innovative high street and town centre strategies.

The Future High Streets Fund should interact with the Task Force to increase the impact of both. It should co-fund with other sectors. It should fund places with community involvement in their town centre demonstrating cross-sector leadership and that show a commitment to collaboration and partnership working. Additional short-term recommendations include:

  • Towns should improve housekeeping of their high streets and town centres and institute a 'National High Street Perfect Day'.
  • Local authorities should encourage landlords and tenants to think innovatively about how to use empty properties.
  • Places should ensure that their parking restrictions and charges are not driving people out of their town centres.

Comment

A number of the findings were foreshadowed by Grimsey2. Town Centre Commission Plans should be developed with a view to transforming high streets into community hubs; less retail, more leisure, entertainment, arts, education, health, housing, offices, is what Grimsey2 said. The Panel recommends that the town centre of the future should attract local people to take part in a variety of non-retail activities. Town Centres should also contain business premises, offices, residential including affordable housing, "It seems obvious [to the Panel] that part of the retail estate should be converted into residential property where there is housing shortage."

Strong leadership should be provided by elected mayors and/or local government working closely with the community was Grimsey2's view. The Panel view is that successful change is created by "(…) locally inspired and led initiatives that are supported by a government that offers information and helps to clear obstacles out of the way."

Sharing best practice would be key said Grismey2 and the Panel recommendations reinforce this. Highlighting and sharing best practice and positive examples for others to learn from should be a key part of the Task Force's role.

With the key findings from earlier independent reviews mirrored in the Panel recommendations an overall message is gaining momentum. It is a consensus that town centres and high streets need to transform into more than a pure retail offering in order to continue to thrive. Key to this transformation will be local solutions and local agents of change; the 'Upside Down Government' approach of nurturing and trusting local initiatives.

There is an opportunity here for inspirational and forward-looking local leadership to get involved, including in heritage based regeneration. A key question is will the New Year see local solutions and agents of change come forward and supported.