Building back differently

By Andrea George | 12 May 2021

Over the past few weeks, our town centres have been returning to life. Shoppers have flocked to the high streets, communities have enjoyed the reopening of hospitality and people are gravitating to the outdoor spaces in the hearts of our town centres.

But, despite the positive impact of increased localism over the past 12 months, there are still challenges facing our towns and cities. For example, the question of how to repurpose the units left behind by large retailers is one that faces almost every high street. The call has been to ‘build back better’, and now local authorities have a real opportunity to build back differently. The pandemic has created a renaissance in localism that presents a chance for town centres to revive themselves, but only if they embrace the move towards mixed-use space, with a focus on independent businesses, and avoid falling back on tried and tested, cookie-cutter templates.

Driving this positive change in communities and managing it effectively requires a two-pronged approach: pooling resources, skill and knowledge through long-term public-private partnerships, and engaging with the community to gather data to shape detailed masterplans, tailored to communities’ differing wants and needs. Developing this understanding and using it to inform a cohesive vision is essential if the revival of our high streets and town centres is to be meaningful and long-lasting.

Long-term commitment

An example of a successful regeneration strategy can be found within the Greater Manchester borough of Trafford.

The market town of Altrincham once infamously had one of the highest shop vacancy rates in the UK, so the impetus was there to implement radical change to revitalise the town centre. The council began by investing in the public realm around the market, a move which had a dramatic impact on the look and feel of the area. It then made local independent traders the centre of attention, partnering with private investors to redevelop the market to provide them with a space to thrive and to turn the listed market hall into an independent food hall.

Now, Altrincham is the regeneration success story that has given the community a place they can be proud of. The backing of local independent businesses – balanced with a select number of high street brands – means that Altrincham is a destination, and has the leisure and hospitality offering to match that status. And it is this approach that we believe will help to future-proof our town centres.

The key to fostering successful town centre regeneration is thinking like a successful retailer. Having an in-depth knowledge of what your customers – or in this case residents – want, and mapping out how they will use an area, is vital for creating time-proof plans.

Using a people-first approach and engaging with residents, existing businesses, local stakeholders and community groups will yield a vast amount of information and data for sustainable, long-term plans to be based on.

This approach will help to deliver what people want, but it’s important to stick with the long-term vision to ensure that spaces continue to fulfil their potential, and to remember that different towns will require very different methods of regeneration in order to meet the community’s needs.

Community is central to success

Although we had worked with Trafford Council since the early 2000s, when towns including Altrincham were in decline and in a need of a level of tender loving care beyond a lick of paint, we formalised the relationship with a joint venture (JV) in 2019 as part of plans to regenerate the old Kellogg’s factory in Old Trafford to create a new neighbourhood – Lumina Village. This partnership sees us work as strategic institutional investors, with aligned governance, shared risk and long-term ambitions.

Following the council’s successful regeneration of Altrincham, the JV identified two further areas of focus in the borough: The Stamford Quarter, a more traditional shopping precinct which sits at the northern end of Altrincham’s high street, and the nearby town of Stretford. Herein lies the value of a people-first, tailored approach.

The Stamford Quarter sits within a now-transformed Altrincham and the priority for the area is to make sure it blends retail, leisure, residential and workspace in a sustainable way. This is designed to create a place that takes the regeneration of Altrincham to the next level, offering something for everyone.

On the other hand, Stretford is only at the beginning of its journey. Its new masterplan, which is still undergoing extensive community engagement, plans to evolve the town’s retail offering – which currently centres around a large indoor mall – with Stretford’s original high street reinstated to form the epicentre of a scheme that will introduce waterfront bars, restaurants and leisure space, new green open spaces, and new homes for residents.

Stretford and The Stamford Quarter present two very different town centres with different users. The use of data from marketing research specialists CACI was critical to understanding whether community needs were being met to help identify gaps and builds. In Stretford this included interactions and conversations with thousands of residents, which have provided invaluable information and a breakdown of how residents and people visiting the town centres shopped, travelled, worked and lived, providing a first step towards drawing up plans.

From there, the data informed the masterplans in different ways: while The Stamford Quarter is much more of a destination and must cater for visitors from a wide catchment area, Stretford has to serve its immediate local community first and so the amenities need to be slightly different. Understanding what each community wants and needs is the core tenet which all regeneration projects must revolve around.

While finances are tight – the perennial problem – the wealth of knowledge and local experience within local authorities will always be essential and must form the foundation of plans which the data can build on.

If we’re to build back differently, the only template for regeneration to follow is to not follow a template at all. Local knowledge and an approach informed by research – particularly via extensive community engagement and through specialists like the High Streets Task Force – are the essential ingredients. How they’re mixed comes only on a case-by-case basis.

Andrea George is director of town centres at the workspace, retail and leisure specialist, Bruntwood Works

@BruntwoodWorks

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