Daniel Gosling
July 2013

Recognising the importance of local high streets

Urban development and regeneration in the UK commonly favours geographically defined and marketable projects over more dispersed investment throughout a city’s local high streets. The creation of new, branded urban centres (for shopping, recreation and premium residential) may be regarded by investors and planning officers as more economically and politically effective in ‘enlivening’ a city’s economy. Yet a problem with embracing this planning approach is that smaller economic centres simply cannot compete with the financial, organisational and marketing strength of the large stores and chains operating at these central sites.

Building Resilience: Why local High Streets Matter
Current UK urban development props up a system of production and distribution held under highly centralised private control: possessing the power to dictate how goods and services are distributed and how and where the public can access them. Research Institutes such as the Stockholm Resilience Centre point out that if our cities do not embrace new planning approaches to tackle future challenges, then favourable or on-par economic and social adaptation to environmental change will not be possible. One reason why resilience is a compelling framework to use in developing urban planning lies in its objectivity and measurability. Based on traditional core drivers for how ecologies change over time (such as ‘diversity’, ‘modularity’ and ‘tightness of feedbacks’), measures of resilience can also be used by policy-makers and planners to better calculate project outcomes, and how they relate to wider regional/national strategic goals.

Getting the Ball Rolling: Town Teams and BIDs in Bristol
In 2011, recognition for the economic importance of local high streets breached the mainstream with the publication of Mary Portas’ High Street Review. Her report’s main recommendations called for weighted business rates to level the playing field between traditional high streets and ‘out of town shopping centres’. As well as to raise support for Town Teams - an inclusive business association model designed to promote a local area, raising funds using Business Improvement Districts (BIDs).

The region of Bedminster, south of Bristol docks, established its own Town Team based in early 2012 before being awarded a £100,000 grant as part of the UK Government sponsored ‘Portas Pilot Scheme’. Going from strength-to-strength Bedminster succeeded in voting itself a Business Improvement District (BID) in March 2013 estimated to annually generate £100,000 in revenue.

BID-funded Town Teams are creating the potential for a positive and inclusive model to allow local business owners to pool resources and self-organise; to publicise and celebrate an alternative to modern commercial centres and out of town shopping. Not by copying them at their own game, but by leveraging the strong selling points local high streets already have: character, relationships, uniqueness and community.

Valuing Bristol’s High Streets – A Case Study
Building on the theories of resilience that I learned during my MA I produced a report for Bristol City Council’s Bristol Futures Group entitled: Recognising the Economic Importance and Diversity in Bristol’s High Streets. Church Road was chosen for the case study as it is an average Bristol high street, yet has a nascent Town Team attempting to tackle some key infrastructural issues. The project design phase received support from both the Church Road Town Team and local Neighbourhood Management Group, and final conclusions were based on my survey data from over 60 Church Road businesses and 100 members of the public.

Survey data showed that high streets can be sites of diverse employment and residential/mixed use which contribute significantly to the local economy. Both from the surveys, and conducting a Clone Town test along Church Road (method), it was discovered that the area is rich in uses beyond retail e.g. leisure, residential, community and cultural use; with the majority (47%) of employees on Church road working in services not retail (30%).

Also the data showed that the majority of shoppers and visitors to the road surveyed had come on foot (66%). Taking their postcodes allowed us to GIS map footfall to the street; with the majority found to be coming from a 200-300 metre boundary to Church Road.

A common complaint amongst business owners was that due to large stretches of double-yellow lines and timed bus lanes, Church Road has mainly become a through-road for commuters. In support of this issue, visitors frequently cited the lack of adequate parking and cultural events as preventing them from spending more time on Church Rd. Indeed 43% of visitors reported staying less than 30 minutes per visit, with 67% reporting spending £10 or more on that visit.

Conclusion and Project Outcomes
Given that no substantial primary data on high streets beyond retail exists in the UK (report: p28), generating original data was both a necessary and important first step in the move to place the importance of investing in local high streets on the urban planning agenda. Ideally promoted within a context of building adaptive regions which can better tolerate fluctuations in food supply and are not fully dependent on other regions for basic products and services.

Short-term outcomes:

  • The Church Road Town Team used the report’s findings to support a successful bid for a £50,000 grant from the Local Sustainable Transport Fund for greening the area.
  • The report is still awaiting a full launch by the Bristol Futures Group this Autumn, and will be used to inform the Bristol ‘Local Centres Action Plan’.

Long-term outcomes:

  • To build the capacity of local business associations in Bristol to tender for grants and create BIDs
  • To place the importance of high streets on Bristol’s Retail Action Plan urban planning agenda.

The report can act as a reference document for Bristol Vision 20:20, neighbourhood partnership development and can also provide an example for researchers to follow in gathering data for Town Teams.

Daniel Gosling (danieljgosling@gmail.com) holds an MA in Environmental Policy (Aberystwyth University) and a H.Dip in Social research (University College Dublin). He studied French and Russian to Degree level (Trinity College Dublin) and has studied and worked in France, Japan, India, Russia and the UK.