Newly published research demonstrates ways to improve the prospects of UK town centres

“..[T]he High Street UK 2020 project has identified, through scientific means, not only the 25 priorities that will improve the vitality and viability of the High Street but also a helpful framework for town centre renewal. This [research] which is freely accessible to any business, local government official, politician or concerned citizen, provides the evidence and guidance for those wanting to change the prognosis of their town centre – from decline back to health.” Says Jim McMahon MP, Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Town Centres, Shadow Minister for Local Government and Devolution and Member of Parliament for Oldham West and Royton, in his foreword to the just published Special Issue of the Journal of Place Management and Development.

The new Issue details the findings of the High Street UK 2020 project, which was led by the Institute of Place Management and co-funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, and which aimed not only to research the changes facing the high street but also bring this knowledge, as well as a package of solutions, direct to people that want to make a difference to the prognosis for their centre.

The articles in the new Issue provide “a fundamental rethink of how we make, manage, maintain and market places.” According to Guest Editors Ojay McDonald, Acting CEO of ATCM, and Professor Kim Cassidy of Nottingham Trent University. “Whilst it will not answer every problem on every high street, we do think it is a major step forward as it gives clear guidance as to what can be done at a local level that can lead to measurable improvements in success.”

The Special Issue contains six articles. The first provides insight into the research process, looking briefly at the ‘staggering number of forces of change’ affecting high streets, details the 25 priority factors for promoting town centre vitality, and then sets out a framework for regeneration based around the application of a new concept "the 4Rs": Respositioning, Reinventing, Rebranding and Restructuring. The article examines the use of these approaches in 10 towns that were part of the research project.

The second article describes the research approach of engaged scholarship and why this is particularly suited to tackling a ‘wicked problem’ such as the future of the high street. This participatory style of research is necessary because of the complexity of issues affecting high streets and the need for different perspectives. The approach is seen as particularly relevant in town centres where partnership is an established concept and can potentially strengthen stakeholder participation in place management.

The final four articles look in detail at each of the 4Rs. Repositioning ‘can enable the local stakeholders to understand what is special about their place and what is happening elsewhere and also help them to plan for future changes that are likely to have great impact on centres.’ Poor understanding of a place’s identity or how a place functions, and mismatches between functionality and visions and action plans, is the key challenge to effective repositioning and developing coherent strategies.

The Reinvention of High Streets and town centres ‘is, put simply, the process of ensuring the offer matches the needs of the catchment.’ This catchment will choose to use high streets that provide offers that are closer to their needs. Reinvention is ‘a process of recognising a need for change, learning from the micro and macro environment and intervening to deliver a High Street or town centre that attracts and meets the needs and expectations of visitors and users.’

In looking at Rebranding, the experience of the High Street UK 2020 project was that ‘place brands can “talk” to local people’s emotions and thus inspire them to engage in public discussions and consultations regarding the future of their town.’ It is important to stress that the brand of a place is not created in the design of a logo but rather in people’s encounters with the place and all its diverse aspects. Place brands have numerous co-creators who engage in a process of co-constructing them as they form and exchange ideas, experiences, feelings and opinions about the place. ‘The foundations of the place branding process can be accurately described by the three areas of analysis, strategy and participation’ and the article explains this process.

As for Restructuring, the research suggests that the multifaceted nature of the changes that are impacting town centres means that ‘many towns have inadequate structures to manage change or encourage any action. Structures that were appropriate once may need changing or refreshing.’ Towns need to identify an appropriate model of partnership or joint working arrangement, they need to explore the practical, structural, operational and relational aspects of such arrangements, to identify the remits, roles and responsibilities of individual partners, to understand the relationship between the role of statutory land use planning and participative approaches and to ensure that partnerships are kept under review and not dominated by one approach.

"We believe that what we have found out from this research will be important for all town centres. We have already seen many aspects put into practice in the towns we have worked with and we have been very encouraged by the response from the more than 5000 stakeholders around the world that we have been able to share some of our recommendations with so far" said Professor Cathy Parker who led the research team. "If you are at all concerned about the future of your town centre, we would encourage you to look at this to identify what can be done."

In order to ensure that as many people interested in the future of town centres or a town centre particular can have access to the research findings and recommendations, all of the articles are available to read or download free of charge to everyone. This has been funded by Manchester Metropolitan Univerity and is the first time a complete Issue of the Journal has been Open Access.

The Institute of Place Management is now working with six of the towns involved in HSUK2020 and other partners in a research and development project led by retail intelligence specialists Springboard to incorporate the 25 factors into a dashboard that can forecast the impact of town centre decisions. The Bringing Big Data to Small Users project runs until July 2018.

The contributing authors to this Special Issue are many of the members of the High Street UK 2020 research team. They are Cathy Parker, Nikos Ntounis, Steve Millington, Simon Quin,  and Costas Theodoridis at the Institute of Place Management, Manchester Metropolitan University, John Pal at the University of Manchester, Mihalis Kavaratzis at the University of Leicester, Deborah Peel at the University of Dundee and Fernando Rey Castillo-Villar at the Institute of Technology and Higher Education, Monterrey, Mexico.

The towns that participated in the HSUK2020 project were Alsager, Altrincham, Ballymena (in photo top right), Barnsley, Bristol (St George), Congleton (in photo above), Holmfirth, (in photo bottom right), Market Rasen, Morley (in photo on news page), and Wrexham. We are grateful to the many stakeholders in these locations for their time and input.