Notes from the GLA Planning Committee 11 December 2012- “Vision for London’s town centres”

February 4, 2013

Speakers

  • Architecture /Planning/Design: Terry Farrell
  • Retail: John Burton – Development Director, Westfield; Henrietta Green – Food writer and consultant; Simon Willis – Co-Founder & Managing Director, Purpose Europe
  • Academic/ Think Tank: Julian Dobson – Director, Urban Pollinators; Ziona Strelitz – Founding Director, ZZA Responsive User Environments
  • Marketing/ Investment: James Miller – Lead Consultant, Experian (marketing consultancy)
  • Outer London: William McKee – Chair, Outer London Commission

Part I. Drivers of change for UK town centres: this section considered factors considered to influence change of the role of town centres and high streets:

The main changes and challenges identified in UK town centres were:

  • The flight of public services and the changing way in which retail operates: many shops closing in town centres; communities losing the social and economic benefits provided by town centres.
  • The challenges faced by the economy and their impact on businesses in the high streets: declining consumer confidence impacting the vitality of town centres.
  • The competition with large shopping centres: large developments such as Westfield London have set a new standard in retail offer, raising consumers’ expectations of the range of products on offer, convenience, cleanliness and security. In comparison the traditional high street environment is harder to manage, with a multiplicity of owners and occupiers, exposure to bad weather and the potential for antisocial behaviour.
  • Infrastructure: while infrastructure schemes such as Crossrail can potentially reinvigorate large town centres through intensification and growth (e.g. Stratford City) ; the less accessible town centres in Outer London are at a significant disadvantage compared to out of town retail sites in terms of parking.
  • Employment in town centres: differs for small and large centres: while Central London has a concentration of specialised, high value jobs, Outer London centres are small local centres of employment containing a mixture of office-based and consumer service jobs targeting the local community. The retail and public sectors play a much larger role in small town centres than in the major employment centres.
  • The demographic shifts and the digital technology, moving a lot of businesses online.

In the context of Central London, Terry Farrell gave examples of emergent large town centres such as Kings Cross and Westfield as a proof of how shopping and infrastructure can accumulate stronger town centre activity. He suggested Kings Cross was a successful example because planning was proactive in the way it engages with its surrounding instead of making it a major enclosed development, increasing residential density and leisure around the centre and making it more balanced, which was made possible by the private sector land ownership.

The common point made by most speakers was that it is wrong presuming that the future of town centres is retail-based. They emphasized the need to generate local public services, free spaces and local employment and give town centres a much more diverse and broader definition of life. The main challenge for town centres was whether the public services that were anchors before will maintain their role.

The emphasis was that town centres are different and need different ways of thinking. It was noted that successful town centres have locally sensitive policy and flexibility in their planning framework to respond to change and local needs. There was an interesting discussion about the role of planning and whether it should be proactive or reactive to the changes in town centres, giving example of the link between infrastructure (e.g. parking), the change in the use of car and the state of local businesses.

Part II. The future of town centres

In a discussion of the possible approaches to revitalise town centres, most of the speakers supported the idea that to ensure sustainability of town centres there is a need for:

  • encouraging local economy
  • bringing local employment opportunities
  • promoting local assets and environments
  • creating diversity of use

One speaker emphasized the importance of locality and the town centre’s surrounding, noting that weak town centres are usually surrounded with poor neighbourhoods. He suggested that creating spaces that benefit the local community and enhance local social life, such as offering local employment to people who live locally, has the potential to mitigate these problems short-term. Julian Dobson noted the wrong focus on the idea that centres are created for people and not by people, highlighting the need to humanise town centre thinking.  He recommended creating more opportunities for local activity in small town centres by facilitating local ownership and investment. Residential development was also seen as a positive factor for town centres increasing their land value, creating places which are human, attracting more services driven by residential demand and leading to diversification.

Few of the speakers mentioned any spatial factors that could help revitalise town centres. Terry Farrell made an interesting point suggesting that although all places have different context and history, there are common components of successful or failing town centres and the challenge is to identify them. Drawing a parallel between Kingston and Stratford, he noted that they differ in terms of how dependent they are on their connectivity to Central London, but both offer an ease of access, pedestrian connectivity and easy intelligibility. Transport was seen as an important factor to boost liveability in district town centres. Creating easy pedestrian and cycling access, as well as increasing the number of short-distance trips were recommended for Outer London areas as an effective way to support town centres and deal with the issue of poverty. Ziona Strelitz highlighted the possibility of using third spaces as places of work, thus decreasing the distance between home and work and creating a work-life balance. Change of use of existing buildings was seen as a way to create huge opportunities for re-inventing the role of town centres.

Finally, each speaker made recommendations which are listed below:

  1. Public spaces where people can work
  2. Ease planning restrictions, change of use
  3. Investing in amenity
  4. Behaviour changes (create corporate uses, bring benefit to local communities)
  5. Learning from elsewhere (successful Town centres that can teach); positive programme for every level
  6. Understanding local people is key
  7. Planning policy – based on mixed-use

 

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