Where would historic towns be without shopping? Nowhere, in an historical sense, because most of them originated as market towns and centres of trade, for very different goods certainly, but still shopping by another name. Over the years it is trade that has shaped the architectural, economic and social character of town centres.
The importance of retailing cannot be over estimated. Today shopping, as we know it, is the lifeblood of prosperous town centres and is critical in maintaining overall investment in them. It has a fundamental impact on the physical character and distinctiveness of centres; and innovative approaches to retail help to find viable uses for historic buildings. It is important to the quality of life of the users; and successful centres offer services accessible by more sustainable means of transport.
Retailing is one of the most dynamic of the activities that shape our historic towns, so fast moving in fact that planners and conservationists find it hard to keep up. There are complex interactions between several pressures, including: a move away from the traditional high street; the demand for bigger, shop units; the rise of the multiples and the decline of independent traders; vehicle access for shoppers and servicing; the demand for greater control and security; the ambition for more and more places to become sub-regional centres; the imperative to respond to climate change issues; and the need for a sensitive policy framework.
This combination of importance and pressure for change means that those responsible for historic town centres have to face four key challenges in a world where convenience and quality drive providers and consumers alike:
- Protecting the overall character of historic town centres
- Ensuring that town centres are places where people want to be
- Creating new buildings that enhance both the character and experience of the place
- Providing new retailing profitably and successfully
There are no off the peg answers to these challenges, rather a bespoke package has to be designed to suit the needs of each place by combining a number of tools. Among the tools are: clarity of vision and positive encouragement to investment; durable and consistent national, regional and local policies; sensitive new development based on site selection, building design and mix of uses; and complementary actions, such as town centre management, to maintain quality and distinctiveness. In short, shopping and place making must go hand in hand.
The EHTF's 'Focus on Retailing' to be launched in March will have this message at its heart.
And it's not just the EHTF's view. In its report Shopping Places for People, the British Council for Shopping Centres concludes that 'Place-making must be an overarching objective, involving identity and community building through the creation of vital and highly differentiated spaces.'Brian Human