DWF and LGC (Local Government Chronicle) recently hosted a roundtable to explore how retailers, institutional investors and local government can come together to regenerate town centres for the 21st century. Topics discussed included models of private-public collaboration, retail overcapacity in town centres, and barriers to redevelopment. This is our summary of the key discussions and as well as perspectives from our own sector experts who explain the legal avenues that are in place to support town centre development.
The advent of online shopping coupled with the emergence of out of town shopping centres has created fundamental challenges for many town centres in the UK. While we are seeing change across all areas of business and society, what is perhaps most startling across many towns is the pace with which change appears to be happening. Major retailers are closing at an alarming rate and vacant plots are appearing up and down key shopping streets and in some of the worst hit places empty space dominates the landscape. While some town centres continue to do very well and have no apparent need of intervention at least for the time being, local authorities, landlords and investors alike will be trying to anticipate the trends that are emerging in order to give themselves the best advantage in the future.
In our roundtable with LGC, local government representatives and private sector stakeholders, it was clear that common influencing factors such as the lack of taxation of online trading set against high business rates for “bricks and mortar” are having effects. However, what was equally clear was that there is no 'one size fits all' solution and every town has to play to their own local strengths and develop pragmatic plans that factor in their particular economic, geographic and demographic circumstances. For those places in greatest need it is difficult to see a successful regeneration happening without strong public sector involvement to steer it, both in terms of impetus and energy but also in use of powers from site assembly to assistance in funding and/or risk sharing where most required. It was heartening to see so many local authorities so focused on the challenge and so well advanced in understanding the issues and developing solutions.
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As legal advisers to many public sector bodies, DWF is seeing all of the above powers being used on a daily basis by our clients across the UK to intervene and deliver successful regeneration, create or safeguard jobs and provide commercial income (please see our Commercialisation report with the LGC released in January 2019 for an assessment of what local authorities are doing to generate income).
Our recent roundtable with LGC shows the importance of local authorities working with other public sector partners (LEPs, combined authorities and health bodies), and the private sector to set a clear vision and purpose for their town centres.
Retailers are the backbone of the British economy and high streets the backbone of our local communities. It is of the utmost importance that we create an environment to help them both flourish. If retailers continue disappearing at the current rate or have to rely on CVAs, there will be an immense knock-on effect on the economy, workforce and general desirability of the UK as a whole.
Town centres have traditionally comprised of retail assets but while store incomes have been decreasing driven partly by the rise of online shopping, retailers are faced with static rents and rates liabilities that do not decrease proportionately.
In addition to the core agents of local government, real estate and retail, successful town centres are inextricably linked to effective transport networks. Whether town centre space is used for retail, leisure, entertainment or healthcare in the future, it will inevitably need to be easily accessible to commuters, shoppers and the suppliers of goods and services.