Future Spaces Report analysed

FSFAnother year, another high-profile report into the future of the high street.  The Future Spaces Foundation, which was established in 2013 by architecture practice Make in order to “undertake new thinking and inform the future of the spaces we live in,” has produced its inaugural report ‘The Future High Street.’

The report of course follows the Grimsey Review, published independently by Bill Grimsey last year – I analysed Grimsey’s report here.  Before that came the Government-commissioned Portas Review, published in late 2011 and leading to ‘Portas Pilots’ and Town Teams in 2012. My client Towns Alive looked at the effects of Portas’ recommendations and the Government’s response, one year later, in this series of articles in late 2012 and then asked Has Mary been good for our town centres? in May last year.

Then came more from Government. 2013 saw the publication of the ‘Future of the high streets’ report.

New report, new thinking?

jv-picThe Future Spaces Foundation say its report seeks to look “beyond short-term, primarily retail-based solutions to explore new, creative ways of reviving the UK high street.”  So what to make of it? My analysis was first published on the Towns Alive website and is re-packaged below.

The Foundation say its ultimate aim is to encourage an environment where smart design enables strong communities and allows people to live and work in first class spaces. They’ve made a lot of the fact that the report “challenges the role of retail in the regeneration of the high street…and built a more comprehensive picture of the future challenges that will shape where and how we live, work and spend our free time.”

And they’ve certainly brought some interesting thinkers together to explore and consider alternative strategies. Alongside Ken Shuttleworth the Foundation assembled a diverse panel, bringing a range of viewpoints and expertise. Their panel includes:

Emeka Egbuonu, a community and anti-gang worker; Alan Davey, chief executive of Arts Council England; Annemarie Naylor, ex-Locality and now director of Common Futures; Paul Swinney, senior economist, Centre for Cities; Gavin Kelly, chief executive, Resolution Foundation; Andrew Stevenson, senior lecturer, Department of Psychology, Manchester Metropolitan University – and other experts too.

The report includes ideas generated by the panel; socio-economic research to transform them into forecasts of expected future trends, with alternative assumptions and scenarios; a number of recommendations for future changes in policy; and case studies of three contrasting towns, Barnsley, Stoke-on-Trent and Swindon.

Its situational anaysis finds that the key factors likely to significantly affect the performance and role of UK town centres over the next 5 – 10 years are economic and 
demographic change; consumer purchasing power and confidence; consumer preferences; technology; property dynamics; localism.

Three Principal Recommendations

The Foundation makes three principal recommendations on a new way to approach the rejuvenation of our high streets. These are:

  • Effective community empowerment and youth engagement policies, including introducing a youth panel as part of the consultation process for the development of high streets and town centres.
  • Using learning and education as drivers for change: bringing learning opportunities into the centre of towns and cities when considering the expansion of existing facilities or development of new ones (the Foundation believes that towns and cities could be boosted by up to £30 million through realising the knowledge economy opportunity)
  • Flexible and effective planning: simplification of planning processes to enable town centre buildings and sites to be converted to uses that match demand

Ken Shuttleworth, chair of the Future Spaces Foundation (and famed for being the architect behind London’s “Gherkin” building) said: “We hope these findings will be a wake-up call for policy makers and commentators to finally accept that we need to think creatively when approaching the problems on our high streets. Without a significant shift in perspective, we are in danger of losing these spaces and seeing our town centres as we know them disappear forever.”

In many ways the message of Future Spaces echoes the report that my client Towns Alive co-produced (with Urban Pollinators, the Empty Shops Network, Incredible Edible Todmorden, Meanwhile Space CIC, MyCard, Research 00:/, Res Publica and Wigan Plus) in 2011, “Towards a Twenty-First Century Agora”, which detailed 7 key principles for viable and sustainable town centres.  This report’s vision focused on the need to reposition town centres as the heart of the community, utilising space in new and innovative ways that reflect the values and needs of the communities living in and around them.

Within this vision the report called for

“..a multifunctional approach to urban space and its use. Local centres are about much more than shopping, although shopping is an important part of the mix. They are about enjoyment, creativity, learning, socialising, culture, health and wellbeing and democratic engagement – a 21st century agora where people engage in the life of their locality.”

“High streets can be reimagined as start-up zones, health hubs or learning centres – particular approaches should always be in response to local priorities and needs. A core message is that we need a ‘place first’ approach that is deeply connected to the aspirations, strengths, creativity, energy, needs and drive of local people.”

“Our centres can become lively, creative, exciting and useful places that reflect the diversity of our communities – but not through retail alone.”

Beyond the Future Spaces Report’s key recommendations it’s worth considering some of its chapter-by chapter findings.

Location of public services

Commenting on the trend in recent years for back office and non-public facing elements of public services to move to out-of-town locations, Annemarie Naylor says: “Public sector assets are too often being moved out of town centres in the search for modern office space which is environmentally proficient. This produces a domino effect with both the flight of retailers to the internet and the public sector withdrawal which is absolutely devastating to what were spaces for interaction.”

And whilst the report’s assertion that public sector resources will continue to be squeezed, its comments that the location of the remaining public services “has the potential to make, or break, any rejuvenation of the high street, given their ability to strengthen high streets as key economic, service and transport hubs,” deserve consideration.

Shuttleworth comments

“The era of the business park is over. We need to focus our efforts on bringing people back to the high street through smart design whilst business parks should be mothballed or, ideally, turned into parks,” and the report is clear:

“Not only do we need to lobby the public sector to relocate their out-of-town services back to the high street and once there ensure they stay there for the long term, we also need to continually remind and demonstrate the critical role they play. In any one community it can take just a single service to move elsewhere, to set off a chain reaction, which has the potential to rip the heart out of that local community.”

Commercial activity and employment

If the future of the high street isn’t retail, then what does the future look like for commercial activity and employment in our town centres and cities?

The Foundation sees alternative employment and commercial models emerging on our high streets, both through the renaissance of traditional industries such as manufacturing and through capitalising on new technologies such as 3d printing. Additionally, the foundation sees m-commerce playing an important commercial role in the high street of the future.

What about transport?

The Foundation sees four major important changes in public transport policy that, it says, must be implemented in order to ensure town centres and high streets are places that people want to live, shop and work in:

  • A de-stigmatisation of bus travel, bringing it to equal, if not superior, level with the car as a mode of transport – particularly in smaller towns and cities
  • An overhaul of car parking policy
  • A focus on design to accommodate pedestrians and cyclists
  • Transport infrastructure designed with multiple uses to give it a more fluid role in the town centre

Resonance with others’ experience

There’s much of value and interest within the Future Spaces Report, and much that chimes other organisations’ work and recommendations about multifunctional town centres.

It’s good to see consideration given to bus passengers, cyclists and pedestrians, rather than solely to drivers and parking policies which whilst very important (and covered in the report) are often the aspects of transportation that are properly considered; the ideas around the knowledge economy bring fresh thinking; community and youth engagement will be vital in creating places where people want to live, work, spend leisure time; and there are convincing arguments about the domino effect of relocating public sector jobs to out of town business parks – and the need to bring them permanently back to town.

It may be controversial to claim that retail is a secondary rather than primary function of a town or city centre, but I was glad to see acceptance of this ‘multifunctional’ role, and the report’s authors make a good argument that a healthy environment for retailers could be created by following their recommendations, and that retail is one of the key functions of our town and city centres, “alongside the provision of commercial offices, headquarters for civic governance, public service facilities such as job centres and libraries, entertainment and leisure facilities, nodal public transport infrastructure and homes.”

But as Towns Alive’s Alison Eardley comments, alongside this (crucial) long-term view there’s still a need for some short term – emergency – quick fixes:

“In parallel however, we still believe there is a case for supporting the retail sector, in particular independent retailers, on the issues that have most impact on their survival – fairer business rates, the implementation of town-centre-first and the need for a strategic approach to car parking (and integrated transport) in town centres.  These are all top issues raised by our members in our 2014 survey and which we bring to the forefront of debate with government.”  The report does address all of these – but some of the simplified media coverage of the report has not done so.

Alison adds:

“Perhaps one of the most fundamental points that can help to safeguard vibrant centres is encouraging communities themselves to value the retail and other opportunities available in their centres and consider the impacts of their shopping habits when making choices about where to shop. Perhaps this is a catalyst upon which to pin a change of mindset.”

What next?

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