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How to fix high streets – The Grimsey Review 2 echos Greater Manchester’s proposed answer to regenerate town centres

The report concludes that high streets must stop relying on retail and diversify - not dissimilar to what the Greater Manchester Mayor, Andy Burnham is aiming to achieve with his 'Town Centre Challenge' proposal

Bricks and mortar retailing can no longer be the anchor for thriving high streets and town centres, an influential independent review has revealed.

The report was written by a team led by the former chief executive of Wickes, Iceland and Focus DIY, which also published an initial report on the subject back in 2013. Mr Grimsey’s original report was published in 2013 after he disagreed with the findings of a different study by retail expert Mary Portas.

Grimsey said it was time to accept that there was already too much retail space in the UK and town centres need to be “repopulated and re-fashioned”.

The review comes amid a wave of closures and restructurings from major high street names and an ongoing shift to online shopping.

It made 25 recommendations, including creating a Town Centre Commission to develop a 20-year strategy for local high streets; enhancing councils’ Compulsory Purchase Order (CPO) powers to accelerate new development, and making it easier for retail buildings to be converted to other uses such as residential and offices.

It also recommended greater sharing of economic and footfall data between local authorities and suggested that the Business Improvement District (BID) system could be reviewed.

Some of the key recommendations of the report include:

  • To accept that there is already too much retail space in the UK and that bricks and mortar retailing can no longer be the anchor for thriving high streets and town centres. They need to be repopulated and re-fashioned as community hubs, including housing, health and leisure, entertainment, education, arts, business/office space and some shops.
  • To embed libraries and public spaces at the heart of each community as digital and health hubs that embrace smart technology.
  • To give local authorities powers to introduce penalties and incentives for landlords of commercial properties that are left empty for more than 6-12 months. Review the existing property use class system to increase flexibility and look to establish a change of use to make the asset productive.
  • To enable the change of use process through new legislation to be used to convert entire sub-high streets to residential or other uses within the agreed town plan and relocate successful independent businesses to the main commercial centre.
  • To create a nominal maximum charge (£1) for the first two hours of parking in town centres, while introducing 30 minutes free parking in high streets with no paid extension option.

Interestingly, the report echoes much of what the Greater Manchester Mayor, Andy Burnham is aiming to achieve with the innovative ‘Town Centre Challenge’ proposal, which was launched in November 2017.

Speaking about the “town centre challenge”, Mr Burnham said: “It’s about refocusing our whole approach to housing and planning away from a greenfield-first approach, perhaps that we have seen in the past, towards one where we are going first to the brownfield sites”.

“This new initiative is all about regenerating town centres across Greater Manchester which have felt left behind.”

The city-region has eight principal towns in addition to about 20 smaller towns and more than 50 further significant local and suburban centres, a spokesperson for Greater Manchester Combined Authority said

Mr Burnham said there was a “massive housing requirement” and “high levels of traffic congestion”.

“We need to build a new future for those towns through higher-density mixed and affordable housing, with local retail and leisure facilities and supported by transport and digital connectivity.”

Mr Burnham said the “new approach will not mean that there won’t still be difficult planning decisions ahead and some green sites will still be needed”.

In November 2017, Stockport became the first to submit a nomination. The plans, setting out how the council proposes to build on the £1 billion transformation that is already helping the town to fulfil its potential, include a new multi-million-pound transport hub, redevelopment of the town’s retail heart and innovative new town centre living.

Six more Greater Manchester towns were also nominated for the Town Centre Challenge in February 2018, Bolton, Wigan, Bury, Tameside, Trafford and Salford councils submitted proposed locations for the Challenge: Farnworth, Leigh, Prestwich, Stalybridge, Stretford and Swinton respectively.

Speaking at the time, Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, said: “This new initiative is all about working together to regenerate town centres across Greater Manchester which have felt left behind. These latest submissions demonstrate a meaningful commitment to create real change across Greater Manchester.

“The Challenge represents a significant opportunity for councils to drive forward real and sustainable change. The time has come to breathe new life into our proud towns.

“A key priority for me as Mayor is to work with all 10 councils to support improvement in our city-region’s towns, alongside addressing the housing crisis. Every single district has a role to play – we are working together to make Greater Manchester the best place to live and get on in life.”

The Town Centre Challenge is a brand new proactive approach to urban development, with the Mayor pledging to bring together public and private landowners, developers, investors, housing providers, community groups and other key stakeholders.

It represents a new and concerted effort to support Greater Manchester’s local authorities to realise the potential in town centres, with a particular emphasis on achieving sustainable communities featuring thriving housing markets.  By focusing on housing growth in our town centres, maximising them as residential centres, Greater Manchester can minimise the call on greenbelt and regenerate our towns.

Plans from nominating councils are anticipated to propose a creative range of impactful solutions including:

  • Innovative solutions for town centre housing which will provide an attractive place to live in easy reach of key amenities
  • Restructured retail offers
  • Business spaces
  • Public sector hubs
  • Venues for events
  • Cultural offers

Alongside the Town Centre Challenge other Greater Manchester districts are also bringing forward their own programmes, including Oldham’s £350 million Masterplan for the town centre which is forecast to deliver an extra £50 million to the local economy and hundreds of new homes from 2018.

Manchester City Council has opted to not put forward an individual district centre as part of this particular initiative, but has confirmed its support for programmes of work that help to improve and develop the region’s town centres.