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News - 11 September 2013
Shops keep it vibrant but it isn't all about retail

More town centre advice

The Centre for Cities has called for 'town centre first' policies to be ditched in place of incentives for a wide variety of companies to occupy town and city centres.

In a report called Beyond the High Street, the think tank says that the planning policy fundamentally misunderstands the changing role of urban centres by being too retail and ignoring business and residential growth.

The think-tank is calling for the government to be creative and use a projected £3bn underspend in its Regional Growth Fund [RGF] to create a separate fund specifically for city and town centres. This would be used to address physical and digital infrastructure requirements in towns and cities and be distributed in response to coherent plans for either creating new capacity in densely-occupied city centres, or reversing decentralising trends, depending on the city.

Looking behind the cause of recent retail decline, Centre for Cities says that "sluggish" retail is only a symptom of a struggling city centre, not the cause of it. Eight of the UK’s ten largest cities had seen an employment-led transformation of their core areas with retail simply being one of the contributors.

Centre for Cities chief executive Alexandra Jones said the UK’s most successful city-centre economies were the most productive parts of local economies but this isn’t true for all town and city centres. She said, "Many could have a bleak outlook unless policies stop focusing on the 20th century high street, and start thinking about a 21st century city centre," she said.

"Thriving city centres have to be places in which people can work, as well as live, play and shop – and that means thinking more broadly about jobs and business growth. If cities continue to hollow out, they will not be able to provide the right kind of city centre environment to attract and retain the businesses that will support their economy in the future."

Other recommendations in the report include: -
  • The controlled, proactive removal of long-term vacant office and retail stock;
  • The creation of planning free zones to reduce the cost of new development;
  • The concentration of public-sector and university functions in town and city centres were the property market is weak
  • Reduced business rate incentives to encourage firms to locate in city centres.


The reason why Brighton is such a successful city centre with a retail vacancy rate well below the UK benchmark of 14% is because it has managed to marry a truly unique retail offer with a cultural and artistic offer that is the envy of many cities of similar size in addition to considerable office-based, non-retail employment space. On top of this we have a significant residential population that lives within a spit of the city centre itself. Add in a superb transport system delivering people into the city centre with great efficiency and we are well ahead of the curve when it comes to the 21st century city centres alluded to in the Centre for Cities report.

The fly in the ointment is that, with the new rules on office to residential conversions with the need for planning consent [see earlier story] and similar freedoms that seem likely to be granted to shops [see earlier story] it will become increasingly hard to control the balance between all the elements that makes the city centre successful.

Read related items on:
Retail, pubs, clubs and restaurants
Centre for Cities

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