What do you see as the greatest impediment to revitalising the high street?
“What’s ultimately required is great vision and strength of political leadership. Everything else flows from that and falls into line behind it. What do I mean? Well, if an idea falls outside the current legal framework, this can be addressed, and a ‘patch’ put in place to bridge the gap and smooth the way. But once a compelling vision is set out along with clear goalposts and rules, backed up by strong leadership to propel things forward, this is when investment flows, and things change.
“It’s what we call placemaking and requires impact investment. This funding can often come in the form of long-term pensions, where the pension-fund managers see the potential of the project: ‘I believe this place could be incredible, it’s clear that local government backs the vision, and I’m happy for us to invest our money into this development over the next 10,15, 20 years to help drive long-term economic improvements in this area.’ But as I say, this can only happen with strong leadership from both local and national governments. Without such leadership, it’s very difficult to have a catalyst for change.
“And change comes through innovation, which involves a little bit of risk-taking. However, another problem our high streets face is that many of their large anchor buildings tend to be in the hands of disparate groups of risk-averse owners, such as large pension funds, big investors, charities and trusts, all of whom simply want to take an income from the property without having to think too much about their investment. Anything technology-driven or involving risk is often met with scepticism or even fear. And yet, from an economic perspective, the question is really whether the owners can afford not to be innovative.”
Such innovation seems to be urgently needed to regenerate our urban spaces – what do you think it will take for the penny to really drop amongst the relevant stakeholders?
“In terms of what will ultimately drive progress and innovation forward, it really comes down to an infinite cascade of influence. Town centres cannot afford to have lots of unoccupied buildings because these don’t drive footfall, and a loss of footfall, in turn, leads to more vacancies, which makes the high street look increasingly forlorn and drives footfall down further in a vicious circle.
“Also, if our town centres’ buildings are unoccupied, they aren’t generating revenue for the asset owners, who cannot afford for this state of affairs to continue. And if we want thriving communities on bustling high streets in smart cities in a world facing the effects of climate change and energy and food insecurity, we need sustainable energy generation, sustainable energy storage, we need edge data centres, we need ultra-local food production – and this all requires innovative use of our urban spaces.
“All of these factors feed into each other to create the tipping point at which the relevant stakeholders will be forced into action. As has been the way throughout all of human history, it becomes a case of innovate or die.”
Watch out for our full profile of Chris to read his thoughts on the importance of holistic planning and why people’s experience of a place is key to successfully revitalising our urban centres.