Comeback for our communities

By Tracey Crews | 24 November 2020

Tracey Crews says that while changes in retailing will inevitably lead to a retracted high street, the aim in Cheltenham is to bring back community to the town centre amidst a thriving mix of complementary uses

Evolution of the high street in Cheltenham is not new. Looking back to the start of this decade the UK retail scene has been constantly changing, with big names reinventing themselves online or disappearing from our high streets for good.

Before COVID-19 hit, town centres were evolving as consumers demanded more experiential retailing and linked trips that sought out high quality food and drink and leisure activities, with the emphasis on experience and quality of offer.

In 2018, Cheltenham BC established Marketing Cheltenham, a destination marketing organisation at its heart but with an expanded remit to support economic growth and inward investment. Key principles transferable to the challenges of the high street include:

  • Understanding market demand
  • Competitive opportunity
  • Brand proposition

These principles are still the driving force behind helping to curate the town centre, but Cheltenham’s immediate focus is now on recovery and the role the high street plays in this. To support this, a new Cheltenham economic recovery taskforce has been established. We recognise that our town centre needs a step change in both thinking and approach to delivery; we need strong local leadership and partnership working that can deliver the swift, bold and brave actions that are needed to secure the future vitality of our town centre.

More than ever before we need to give businesses reasons for wanting to be located on the high street and to give visitors more reasons to visit. This means thinking even more creatively about the role events, culture and communities can play in creating vibrant town centres and the type of uses that are flexible to support investment longer term.

The rise of e-commerce is key disruptor to the high street, and while pre-COVID-19 the academic and industry evidence pointed to customers using online platforms to research products, they still preferred to buy things in person and valuing brand loyalty.

Research by Wunderman Thompson Commerce undertaken in July 2020, indicates that only one in six (16%) UK consumers intend to return to their old shopping habits post-lockdown, signifying the lasting change that COVID-19 will have on the retail industry.

In this changing context, how will towns such as Cheltenham respond?

Data derived from Maybe indicates less than 34% of Cheltenham businesses use social media and only 21% of those are actively on social media each day. So, part of our challenge is how we provide businesses with the confidence to present their business online as well as in bricks and mortar.

As we watch the national retailers operate, some have shifted their whole businesses online, and it will be a matter of time before smaller business and independents find the right technological solutions that enable them to embrace the digital retail environment. However, we should not see this as the death of the high street, but see digital as part of the jigsaw that rejuvenates it.

Changes in retailing will inevitably lead to a retracted high street; work is already under way to encourage landlords to rethink their property portfolios, to move away from traditional models and think about different uses to maximise the use of buildings.

We have bold and ambitious plans, with cyber bringing significant investment through the Golden Valley Development on a strategic 200-hectare site delivered through our development plan. We are committed to ensuring the whole town benefits from this investment.

We are bringing this into the high street through projects such as Minster Innovation Exchange, a £5.2m flagship scheme in the heart of Cheltenham that will deliver 20,000sq.ft of purpose-built commercial space, flexible workspaces, a 300-person capacity performance arena, café, community and education space.

We need investment, and to attract this we need to bring community back into our town centres. This means a greater proportion of residential, office and leisure uses, and rethinking our approach to small industrial and wider employment uses.

We need to think differently. Didn’t Napoleon coin the phrase that England was a nation of shopkeepers? Bringing back community amidst a thriving mix of complementary uses creates the environment to look through a different lens at the types of uses that underpin community.

Tracey Crews is director of planning at Cheltenham BC

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