Below is the text of a speech I gave on 3rd July to the Association of Town Centre Management. The speech delivered would have varied slightly from this text as I didn’t just stand up and read it, it just provided me with a structure and a crutch.
Town and city centres are the cradle of civilisation. People came together to trade creating markets which in turn developed villages in key locations into towns. The exchange of goods led to the exchange of ideas, to innovation, invention and modern society. The historic role of town centres was not just about trade but also about culture, learning and life itself.
When I set up the Broadmead board in Bristol the threat to our centres was the out of town development, a comparison shopping Mecca with acres of car parking and associated leisure facilities. The battle was to stake out a lively, safe and diverse town centre alternative. I remember the effort we put into making our streets clean as the first step to winning the confidence of retailers and landlords alike. From there came the redevelopments, here in Bristol, Cabot Circus.
Today our town centres face a new threat, not that the out of town centres have gone away. In some ways this threat has been cloaked by the recession.
There is now a new place where people can meet, trade goods and ideas. The internet. The internet is creating communities of interest which don’t need to be co-located. Shopping from your sofa and socialising from the living room. Goods purchased direct from retailers or via Amazon arrive on our doorsteps. We can even sell to each other via EBay turning us all back into traders.
Town centres are no longer required for their historic purpose. Perhaps we should close the conference now. Have I come here like Mark Antony “To bury town centre management, not to praise it”?
I work in the housing sector where housing management has developed into neighbourhood management and is now having to reinvent itself again. I think that our town centres need more than management,
more than a green or black bin with a gold embossed council logo on it and matching lampposts,
more than pictures covering the windows of empty shops.
Our town centres need to find new purpose and new energy. In some ways the Portas review says it all but I have some time to fill so please indulge be a little longer.
My organisation, which started as 1 then 2 then 3 then 6 council housing departments is breaking away from its housing past. When we look at the areas we serve managing the housing is no longer enough as we need to deal with our estates by more than one property at a time. Neighbourhood management also is not enough. While cutting the grass is important, to have sustainable communities we need to do more. We also have to respond to the huge demographic change which is taking place, as our society grows collectively older.
We can’t wait for others to deal with the problems on our estates, the councils are closing services and the charities are falling away as grant income becomes harder to find. We are having to move from management to leadership. Can we create new jobs and new businesses ourselves, with our customers? Can we design our homes to respond to peoples’ needs? Should we be providing new services ourselves, care, health, education, the list is potentially endless.
This is also the challenge facing town centre management.
Now we all know that town centres are constrained by historical layouts, dispersed ownership and archaic planning regulations. Indeed I am trying to open a shop in a town centre in Somerset. The planning hurdles to me doing this are only matched in their complexity by their absurdity. I need a change of use, but to do this I am required to say what I want to do in every square metre of the building, I made the mistake at one point saying that I did not know what I would do with one of the existing backrooms to the shop which now means I need to provide a detailed floor plan specifying all uses. If I was an individual entrepreneur rather than part of a corporate body I would have given up months ago.
We need to be bold with our town centres or watch them collapse into a combination of charity shops, pound shops, coffee shops, the few hardy perennials and a lot of empty unused space. Holding markets alone will not sort this out, sorry Mary. In my experience many shop based retailers hate market stall holders as they envy their freedom from overheads. We are lucky in Bristol with the quality of our market stalls but many town markets are dominated by outdoor versions of pound shops or car boot sales.
We need to find new uses for the spaces which are unlet, not keep holding out for retailers to fill the space. This can’t be achieved by town centre management. To succeed we need to convince councils to have the courage to tear up the rule book and for owners to think again about what uses will work in their properties. Town centre managers need to be able to advocate for a radical overhaul of our high streets. Perhaps we need a form of enterprise zone for centres which not allow a reduction in business rates but also a more flexible planning regime allowing changes of use between retail and other activities.
Let us go back to the local communities and customers and see what they can do. There have been a few examples of empty shops being turned over to new businesses and social enterprises to create new uses and activity. Perhaps some of our shops should be converted into housing or offices or performance spaces or artist studios. Town centres were never just about retail and we need to be far more open to a more diversity. A monoculture based largely around shopping and eating is always much easier to create out of town. The difference about the high street is that it is somewhere and can be far more than a covered retail park.
Town centres need to be where people come together when they want more from a relationship than 140 characters. We still need human contact, we still need to feel things. We can’t do everything through the internet.
This needs leadership not management (well maybe management as well). It needs the authority to change the mindset of planners, owners, licensing. It needs the credibility to involve a wide range of partners and local communities. I think you are exceptionally well placed to do this.
So I say
The Association of Town Centre Management is Dead
The Association of Town Centre Leadership