Changing activity hours in a centre so that they better meet the needs of the community the centre might serve is one of twenty five priority factors to promote the vitality and viability of a town or city centre, according to new research from Manchester Metropolitan University and the Institute of Place Management.

High Street UK 2020 was a knowledge exchange project partially funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) who were concerned about the impact changes to retailing in the UK were having on town and city centres. The project began early in 2014 and is just reporting.

To understand what was happening in respect of retailing and town centres, the project began with a literature review. This found that there were some 164 measures of retail centre performance identified in the literature covering factors such as catchment area, centre image, car parking, retail offer and resilience.

The literature review also found 156 factors that influence performance in retail centres. These included the range and quality of shops, range and quality of goods, floorspace, retailer offer but also some of the elements that others had used as measures such as car parking.

The High Street UK 2020 project worked alongside ten UK towns in order to bring about the knowledge exchange. These towns were Alsager, Altrincham, Ballymena, Barnsley, Bristol (Church Road, St George), Congleton, Holmfirth, Market Rasen, Morley, and Wrexham. At a meeting where the measures and factors were discussed with leading stakeholders from the towns we asked them if there were other factors they experienced which the literature review had not identified. Working in groups, they came up with a further 50!

On closer examination, some of the 50 were already listed but we ended up with 201 factors that affected performance of town and city centres. Although some of the factors raised by the towns we found elsewhere in the literature, such as health, we found little or no academic evidence on twelve of their factors and we have published these as a research agenda.

The challenge of 201 factors was to determine which should be prioritised. They were ranked by 22 leading academic and practitioner experts using the Delphi technique. This meant each expert ranked each factor independently and then a second round sought evidence where differences in rankings occured.

The experts were seeking to identify firstly how important a factor was for town centre vitality and viability, and secondly the extent to which a factor was controllable locally. To illustrate this, the experts agreed that location was an important factor in determining vitality and viability, something borne out by subsequent research on footfall in town centres. However, there is very little local initiatives can do about location, they often have no influence over a rival centre developing or a new out of town development, let alone the actual geographic position.

Examining the experts' rankings, the research team placed each factor in one of four categories. The categories were "Forget it" (those with little importance and little control), "Live with it" (those with importance but little or no control), "Not worth it" (those with little importance but great control) and "Get on with it" (those with the greatest importance and control).

Although there were still a considerable number of factors that fell into the "Get on with it" category, to make this useful to local partnerships, we looked at statistically grouping factors. This resulted in a top 25, one of which was ensuring activity hours matched the community need. Having been discussed with more than 250 stakeholders across the ten towns, and. more recently with over 2,000 conference delegates around the world, we conclude that every town should ensure that their town or city centre strategy incorporates each of the 25 factors if they want to promote vitality and viability.

Photos on this page show Morley (main), Altrincham (top), Congleton (middle), Holmfirth (bottom). Photos supplied by the towns.