Transforming our high streets

Even before COVID-19, town centres were being reimagined and diversified. What can we learn from their progress, and how does the pandemic present an opportunity for their revival?


  • Heather Lindley-Clapp
  • Rob Pearson

22 March 2021

Cork city centre © Shutterstock

Town centre planning policies have traditionally sought to restrict the change of use of town centre units away from being predominantly in retail use. Recently, however, there has been a trend towards greater diversification along high streets away from retail as the core land use. Although this diversification is being accelerated by the pandemic, the change was starting to take place beforehand.

For instance, the government had already been planning to support the high street revival and allow for greater flexibility. Alongside the recent extension of permitted development rights, this motivated the introduction of the Town and Country Planning (Use Classes) (Amendment) (England) Regulations 2020 , effective since 1 September, which have drastically changed the Use Classes Order 1987. 

The regulations now provide for three new use classes:
  • class E: commercial, business and service
  • class F.1: learning and non-residential institutions
  • class F.2: local community.
This is opposed to emphasis on retail only in the 1987 order.


Clearly, COVID-19 hasn't entirely diluted the human instinct to mix with others; it has, however, temporarily reduced the desire or ability to travel to shop, eat and socialise. 

As such, district centres are assuming greater importance in serving local needs, a trend referred to as hyperlocalism. In assessing the impact of the pandemic, it will be important to consider the niche role of particular centres and whether some are more resilient thanks to the uniqueness of their offer or the adaptable approach adopted by key stakeholders, for example town councils, businesses, civic societies and so on.

In any event, when considering both the impacts on our high street from the commercial market both before and after COVID-19, we see that diversity and flexibility will be key factors in future. Successful high streets will be able to embrace these new dynamics and the flexible approach promoted by the government.

"Diversity and flexibility will be key factors in future changes"

Village vision offers exemplar

Past and potential diversification is a thread that runs through the Withington Village Framework, which was prepared by a team led by Nexus Planning for Manchester City Council last August. 

The district centre already provides a focus for the community, giving access to retail, leisure, transport, civic, health and other services. It benefits from a distinctive environment and a number of key assets such as the Village's cultural identity as well as engaged and active community stakeholders such as the Withington Village Regeneration Partnership and We Are Withington.

With the changing context and the new challenges facing our high streets, the framework specifically seeks to explore the potential for Withington village beyond remaining a traditional retail-led high street, and considers its future role as a focus for the community. As such, the framework's key themes are health and well-being, the opportunities presented by the digital economy, the scope for community-led partnerships and plans, and responses to climate change. 

The vision for the village will not be achieved overnight, interim uses are being introduced to support growing confidence and wider investment in the centre. The aim is that these short-term initiatives will then help to support longer-term projects to diversify the range of uses and encourage the redevelopment of opportunity sites.

One clear success of has been the Withington Walls community art project, which aims to reinvigorate the area by commissioning and delivering quality street art to the shutters and walls in the village. This initiative, run by volunteers and funded by public donations, and business support, has secured welcome press attention and helped engender a sense of community and stakeholder investment. 

COVID-19 and the high street

The pandemic has stalled the government's agenda for our high streets. However, it has also given time to take stock and reflect on how to reboot our town centres in an online world. 

Much of what is now being advocated is in fact a return to the ways our town centres and high streets were used hundreds of years ago: as places to trade crops and vegetables, meet with friends, and celebrate community. 

Rather than a 20th-century idea of shopping malls and car parks, many commentators foresee that our high streets and town centres will in years to come have fewer but more vibrant and varied shops, specialising in niche or local goods, which the pandemic has shown are prized by the people who live there. For every sad story of a national multiple closing during the past year, there have been tales of smaller, independent commercial enterprises thriving, such as local delicatessens, greengrocers, bakeries, coffee houses and craft ale breweries.

Crucially, any boom in independent enterprise must be supported by increasing footfall on those high streets. We need to encourage more living in our town centres. The increasing desire for people to shop, work and spend leisure time within a 15-minute radius of their front door has come to the fore thanks to a huge increase in home working, which is set to continue to some extent even after restrictions are lowered. 

Such a shift could do away with the notion that multiple cars are a necessity for urban life. It may take time, but with the UN climate conference COP 26 taking place in the UK in November 2021, this is certain to be a highly discussed topic. COVID-19 has accelerated many of these conversations and, history may show, may inadvertently have become a turning point for our high streets.

"Any boom in independent enterprise must be supported by increasing footfall on those high streets"

The High Streets Task Force

To support this change, the government has established a High Streets Task Force (HSTF), comprising experts such as planners, architects and economists as well as leaders in retail; Nexus is proud to have five of its senior urban planning consultants appointed as experts by the HSTF.

The task force was commissioned by the government in 2019 as part of Our Plan for the High Street, in response to recommendations from a panel chaired by entrepreneur Sir John Timpson. Its course has undoubtedly been altered by the pandemic, but it will remain an important way to encourage change and stimulate new ideas.

The HSTF aims to strengthen local leadership in high streets and town centres in England by providing information, advice, training, knowledge and data, helping people to make a positive difference to their local communities. The approach is not, however, to impose ideas or provide uniform measures. It is instead to diagnose the strengths and weaknesses of individual centres while carrying out widespread consultation with those who have lived, worked and shopped on the high streets for many years, in order to prepare a series of targeted measures. 

Reimagining our high streets

The bottom-up approach of the HSTF builds on work Nexus has been undertaking for many years. Nowhere has this been exemplified better than in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, where the consultancy has worked extensively since 2015.

On a broad scale, we have seen the uncertainties created by Brexit and its impact on cross-border trade. We have witnessed the tensions between redressing decreasing footfall in town centres and the desire to secure much-needed jobs in out-of-town retail locations. 

We have seen also council offices and secondary schools being moved out of centres as a result of increasingly tight restraint on public spending. None of this helps town centres as it means there are fewer and fewer reasons to visit. 

On a positive note, however, we have also seen an increasing resilience among local independent traders and community groups. For example, in places such as Enniskillen and Kilkeel in Northern Ireland and Kilkenny and Cork in the Republic, traders have joined forces to create town centre investment funds, as well as training and capacity to help broaden expertise in providing online platforms for brick and mortar businesses. 

They have also shared knowledge to support wide-ranging activities such as customer loyalty schemes, creative ideas on placemaking from local secondary school children, trader forums and websites, and training shopkeepers in creating enhanced store layouts and window displays

We are optimistic that this approach, as well as economic shifts towards the 15-minute centre and reduced car dependence, will – after some inevitable short-term pain – result not only in our high streets becoming more active and focused on what they do best, but also transform them into attractive places to visit at the heart of every community.

Related competencies include: Planning and development management

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