Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.
Visit almost any community in the UK and at its very heart you will find a traditional town centre or High Street. They are usually home to a tick-list of the civic buildings and services that support community life: a town hall, the council house, police station, courts, libraries. Public transport networks converge on them, carrying people like nutrients to a vital organ. Historic landmarks – statues, memorials, castles and churches – cement their deeply symbolic place in the local psyche.
It’s no wonder that residents see them as representing the health and prospects of a community. Yet they are clearly facing immense challenges, with each week seeming to bring more disheartening news from retailers. As the former Managing Director of John Lewis, I fully understand the challenges facing the sector. I also know it’s hard for communities to believe in a new economic future when their High Street is partially boarded up.
In the West Midlands, even though the economy is growing quickly, people walk through their town centre and see tired shops, vacant units and run-down public spaces. There is a big difference between the economic statistics and people’s everyday experience.
However, it is a challenge that we are rising to – with our 12-point West Midlands blueprint for successful town centres in Britain. The councils that make up the region – Birmingham, Wolverhampton, Coventry, Walsall, Dudley, Solihull and Sandwell – have come together to announce a programme of trailblazer pilots to put this pioneering plan into action.
Five local centres – Bilston, St Thomas Quarter in Dudley, Bordesley Green in Birmingham, St Matthews Quarter in Walsall and West Bromwich – will take part in a scheme which will benefit other areas, too.
High Streets and town centres across the country have struggled in the last few years, with the rise of online shopping and out-of-town retail destinations. The collapse of BHS, Poundworld and Maplin; pressure on House of Fraser and Debenhams; and branch closures from M&S and the big banks demonstrate how serious this challenge is.
So here it is, our 12-point plan to revitalise the High Street – with some examples of how it is being applied across the West Midlands:
Experience-led Retail: Traditional retailers recognise that they need to evolve to differentiate themselves from online, focusing more on the personal touch and the face-to-face experience you can’t get from a screen. Think specialist retailers, mixed-use spaces, local shops and some new concepts we don’t even know about yet.
Beyond Retail: There are lots of reasons people come to a place: leisure, work, living and accessing public services. A thriving modern town centre needs to offer far more than shopping. Successful places need people to want to come and spend time there. In Walsall, for instance, Walsall Waterfront has brought contemporary culture to bear on the area, with the Walsall New Art Gallery.
Urban Living: Providing homes within walking distance of workplaces gives people more cash and free time to spend it. This could mean repurposing surplus business premises to provide quality urban housing. Apply the lesson of our major cities, where urban living has tripled since 2000, to our town centres and High Streets.
Co-Working in the Town Centre: Our start-up hot beds are too often focussed on bespoke office space in higher rent areas – why not drive this dynamo into every town centre? In Moseley, Birmingham, The Exchange hosts buzzing creative start-ups.
Public Services for All: We need to think radically about how people access public services. As the focal point of public transport, town centres should be the natural place for health and services, skills training and careers advice. In Dorridge, Solihull, Sainsburys built a doctor’s surgery and small retail units alongside their main store. In Sutton Coldfield, the main library now also hosts a popular child-centric café.
Green and Clean: Town centres must be places that people enjoy being. That means safe dedicated cycle and walking routes, green space galore, and elegant street design and street furniture. The approach to Coventry city centre from the railway station past Friargate, is clean, green, landscaped and even has outdoor gym equipment, such as an exercise bike for people to charge their phones
Safe and Secure: People need to feel safe for them to spend time and money in town centres. Good lighting, CCTV, proactive policing and even simple things like secure bike racks are an absolute must. In central Birmingham, the Colmore Business District has appointed wardens to give helpful and reassuring support to businesses and visitors.
Easy to Get To: Whether it’s bus, train, metro, cycling, or walking, town centres must be easy to get into and out of. And public transport beats driving wherever possible. Government must invest in the transport links needed to create thriving high footfall town centres. The extension of the West Midlands Metro from Wednesbury to Dudley and Brierley Hill will bring people into those town centres quickly and easily.
Accelerate Technology Changes: Technology is disrupting retail, transport and all other industries. We can’t turn the clock back, we need to accelerate the future of the town centre. We must adapt and change, like providing pick up options for online deliveries, or perhaps drop-off points for autonomous vehicles.
Strong Local Leadership: Town centres need co-ordination to make sure they provide a good experience for residents and customers. Whether it is local councils masterplanning, BIDs co-ordinating, a single landlord or landlords working together, the best town centres are the most joined up. In Birmingham, the Bullring and Grand Central malls actively ‘curate’ the shopping experience through its choice of tenants.
A Fair Tax System: Traditional and online retailers should be treated equivalently and we should review business rates to even the playing field for town centre shops. It is widely reported that Amazon’s UK Corporation Tax bill last year was a meagre £4.6 million. This figure was lower than in the previous year. Under the current rules, as their market share grows, they are paying less. In his most recent Budget, Chancellor Philip Hammond announced measures, including plans to cut business rates by a third for almost half a million small High Street shops. He also unveiled a ‘digital services tax’ on online operators, which must be applauded – but we must constantly review taxation policy to make sure it keeps pace with technological change and shopping habits.
Retain Local Character: Each town centre has a character of its own that makes the locals love it. Whether it is a bustling High Street serving the local Asian community or a quaint old market town, we celebrate a town centre’s unique selling point. In Birmingham, the annual Soho Road Diwali celebrations are run by the local Business Improvement District, one of the many ways it serves the community.
We need to take a dynamic new approach to our High Streets with ambitious thinking. The future is not just retail. Our town centres need housing, workplaces and public services to make them thrive.
In the coming months, we will call on experts from the retail sector, finance, housing, landlords and local authorities from across the UK to support my initiative, too.
Every High Street and town centre in the UK has its own unique characteristics, and there is no ‘one-size’ solution to the problems they are facing. In the same way, the five local centres we have selected as ‘pilots’ have different challenges. By addressing them we can learn lessons to apply across the wider conurbation.
Town centres are deeply symbolic. They matter a great deal to people. This plan can help turn them into thriving and vibrant places again.