Breathing new life into town centres

5th of October 2021
Breathing new life into town centres

The surge in online shopping during the pandemic has hammered another nail in the coffin for the high street as we know it. But now communities everywhere are fighting back with visionary plans to inject new life into their failing town centres, writes Hartley Milner.

In just five years, the English market town of Stockton-on-Tees lost more than 100 stores, along with hundreds of retail jobs. Faced with a growing surplus of commercial premises, town planners knew they had to come up with a radical solution to reinvent the high street as an attractive, vibrant public space that was not so dependent on the footfall of shoppers.

While many troubled towns look to convert their empty department stores into flats, storage units or fill them with community pop-ups, Stockton opted to demolish half of its high street and replace it with a riverside park. The park, which will cover an area around three times larger than London’s Trafalgar Square, is being funded with €43.66 million from the Tees Valley Combined Authority and the British government’s Future High Streets Fund. The change of use for the area has received strong public support.

“I think people are starting to realise that high streets have changed forever and the days of them being lined with big name shops are over,” said Councillor Nigel Cooke, cabinet member for regeneration. “We’ve seen it in Stockton with the likes of M&S, Debenhams and H&M all going. But it’s all about how we respond.

“We all enjoy reminiscing about the golden era when every town had a big department store but we can’t turn back the clock. We need to take the bull by the horns and get on with reshaping Stockton for the modern age. If we do nothing we’ll just see a growing number of empty shops.

Oversupply of retail space

“This plan will shrink the town’s oversupply of retail space, bringing it more into line with demand, which will actually boost the prospects of larger units like the former M&S, New Look and Debenhams being reoccupied. It will also open up the town to face the river, as you see in modern towns and cities across Europe. Stockton has been accused of turning its back on the river over the years. It’s the logical thing to do.”

Work is due to get underway next year on demolishing the town’s tired 1970s Castlegate shopping arcade, Swallow Hotel and multi-storey car park. The main retail focus will switch to the Wellington Square location of Stockton’s 700-year-old market and other parts of the High Street and town centre.

The feasibility of covering Wellington Square to weatherproof it is currently being explored. The vision for the town includes a land bridge covering part of the riverside road (which will be reduced to two lanes) and connecting the high street to the river with a cascading series of steps, forming an informal amphitheatre facing the waterfront. A further €35.4 million has been earmarked to provide two new buildings to house a new central library, customer service centre and new headquarters for the council, consolidating its 10 existing offices into two.

The park itself will include an extension of the market square at the northern end, with space for adjacent restaurants and cafes to spill out on to, along with an undulating playground area and a large circular lawn for outdoor events. The aim overall is to create an attractive green space with trees and art installations for families to enjoy.

Also in the UK, Telford & Wrekin Council has won national recognition for a trailblazing €5.9 million regeneration programme that takes the need for change on board while helping high street businesses confront the challenge from online competition rather than succumb to it.

The ‘Pride in Our High Streets’ grants scheme for small businesses was launched in 2018 in response to an alarming rise in retail business failures and premises vacancy levels above the national average. The programme includes a shop front makeover scheme to create more attractive spaces for people to shop and work in.

Grants are being awarded to help existing businesses find ways to diversify in order to survive, along with ‘start-up trial’ grants for market or pop-up shops and ‘empty unit’ grants for people looking to take on a vacant unit.

To date, 30 empty retail premises have been brought back into use, creating more than 100 high street jobs across the borough. Many more positions are expected to follow as the businesses
grow. So far, well over €2.36 million has been spent through the Pride scheme, which is funded by the council and the private sector.

Councillor Lee Carter, council cabinet member for regeneration, said: “Our nationally-recognised retail start-up grants programme has supported new businesses opening across all six of
our borough’s towns, adding to high street diversity, increasing the food and drink offer and the range of independent retailers without displacing existing business.

Helping local business

“Our diversification grants, delivered in response to the restrictions imposed by the pandemic, have helped existing local businesses to take on the challenge of online competition, and I’m delighted we’ve been able to develop and provide this support at such a crucial time. The Pride in Our High Streets programme has also delivered on its plans to make our high streets more attractive, with some 50 properties having been transformed to date as part of our property facade improvement programme.”

Turning out to be something of a flagship project for Telford & Wrekin Council is its Young High Street Challenge, which offers business start-up opportunities to would-be entrepreneurs. Prizes are awarded to school teams for designs and ideas to help regenerate high streets. One prizewinning idea was for a retro clothes shop.

Students were invited to select a vacant unit and were given a €24,000 grant to fit it out and cover initial operating costs. The students now manage all aspects of the shop themselves, six days a week, providing further opportunities for them to acquire new enterprise skills.

Creative thinking

“I’m particularly pleased that young people in Telford and Wrekin have also actively engaged with the Pride programme,” said Carter. “Almost 1,000 young people participated in our Young High Street Challenge, and the winning business – Retro Shack in Wellington, created by students from Wrekin College – is a great example of how schemes like this can unleash the power of young people to design and manage a successful high street enterprise.”

Other winners of the challenge developed ideas for a Wellington youth market and the creation of a youth zone to include staging for musical events, which was due to be introduced this summer. Telford & Wrekin Council’s Pride in Our High Streets initiative has received recognition through the national High Street Awards and from the Local Government Association, which is using Telford as a case study in best practice.

Britain has the largest online retail sector in Western Europe. The sector grew from 19.2 per cent of total sales in 2019 to 25.3 per cent in 2020. With the lifting of Covid restrictions, online sales were expected to fall back to 24.3 per cent in 2021 before trending upwards again. Online retail sales in the UK last year totalled €116.16 billion, compared to €98.74 billion for Germany and €70 billion for France. The figures, from the Centre for Retail Research, also show that the UK lost around 50,000 shops from its high streets in just over a decade, including more than 17,500 chain stores last year alone.

E-commerce is now the fastest growing segment of the retail market across most of Europe. More than 73 per cent of internet users in the European Union shopped online in 2020, according to data from Eurostat.


In Belgium, the city of Roeselare was so concerned about the impact of online shopping on its town centre that it devised a plan to rebrand itself as a “trendsetting and leading retail city”.

The town council set about rebuilding the public square with a library, renovating the disused Sint-Amandskerk Catholic church to house an indoor food market and turn the surrounding area into green space, while also restoring the rundown area around the train station.

Other regeneration projects included a redesign of the city’s main shopping street, the Ooststraat, introducing free parking for people spending just half an hour in town. Squares like the grand Groote Marte that were once littered with parked cars are now filled with tables spilling out from local bars and restaurants.

Roeselare also became the first town in Flanders to develop a city app that offers incentives to people to shop in the town centre. It now has almost 40,000 users. And the entire town centre is now covered by free wifi.

Roeselare’s mayor, Kris Declercq, said: “People are spending more time in town – they come and may shop for an hour. But then they are going to the library to see a concert and then they might go for a drink. So we make the town a meeting place where people come for leisure, for culture or for dinner. But they also come to shop.”


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