News: 17 November 2020Talk of the town, with Planning Associate Nicole Roe...

Back in October one of our retail experts, Planning Associate, Nicole Roe, was officially appointed as an ‘High Streets Task Force Expert’ by the High Streets Task Force to help communities and local government transform their high streets.

The High Streets Task Force is an alliance of place making experts that provides encouragement, tools and skills to help communities and local government transform their high streets. It will provide support to local leaders in town centres and high streets in England.

Nicole, who joined our Manchester team in 2017, has worked on a number of high-profile retail and regeneration schemes including most recently Pollards Yard in Manchester, a hub for artisan and creative businesses formed of recycled shipping containers and the bid and planning application for the regeneration of Birkenhead town centre

Here we catch up with Nicole to chat all things High Streets. Her favourite, immediate and future challenges, tips for success and her new role as a High Streets Task Force Expert. 

What is the aim of the task force and what’s your role as an expert?

Put simply, to redefine the high street. The task force provides a wealth of online support and resources to help local authorities respond to the challenges currently faced by high streets.  This includes guidance for promoting vitality and viability, strategic approaches to high street renewal, and a COVID Recovery Framework. It also offers individualised support to places that have a greater need.

As an Expert I will be assigned to provide technical/professional expertise to local authorities to help unlock the strategic potential of their high streets.  The role will not replace services that are already available in the market but will bring additional capacity and expertise to entrenched problems that the local authority has so far been unable to solve.

There are 150 Task Force Experts, each of us will be assigned to work with a place based on our skills and expertise, and will  unpack specific issues and explore potential solutions, through research, remote consultation, place visits and meetings with local stakeholders.

Over the last 10 years how has your project work shaped your view of high streets?

It has made me realise how finely balanced the retail market is and what a large part local communities have to play in the success of town centre development. National Planning Policy has long told us that ‘needs must be met in full’. I have learnt that this is not something that can be achieved without engaging with the local community and it cannot be achieved through any singular form of development. 

Also, high streets will not thrive if they do not have good supporting transport infrastructure.

What makes a ‘successful’ high street? What do you look out for?

Diversity. There are lots of different measures of what makes a ‘good’ or ‘failing’ high street but ultimately we need our high streets to provide a wide range of services to meet our day to day needs. It is important that we can post a parcel, visit the bank and have a bite to eat within the same trip to buy the kids new school shoes.

A successful high street is also somewhere people want to dwell. One that they will visit for a stroll even if they don’t actually need to buy or do anything. Vibrancy comes from footfall, and that is driven by making places that people want to visit and spend time as well as by providing services and facilities that the community need.

What couldn’t you live without on your local high street?

Buxton in the Peak District is my go-to, and while it may be small it provides me with a nice experience every time I go. It has some wonderful local boutique stores where I have got to know the owners, and it gives me a more personalised and convenient way to shop. I know I can call or message ahead to see if they have what I need before I set foot outside my door. Perhaps most importantly, I know that I can bribe the children to come with me by promising a treat from the Chocolatier or ice-cream parlour and a trip to Pavilion Gardens for them to run riot!

Where’s your favourite UK high street and why?

My home town (Buxton) has to be up there in my top ten, as it has great shops and pop-up markets. However I think I have to say Oxford.It is a lovely city which has a brilliant mixture of large, modern retail floorspace and a smaller local offer in the Covered Market. My sister was at university there and has since settled there with her family, so I have visited repeatedly for over 20 years and watched it evolve.

If there was one thing that should feature on every high street, what would it be?

Perhaps not an obvious answer but I would say a nearby transport hub. People need to access high streets by means other than the car - to have the option of walking in but then getting a bus or public transport home with their shopping. If high streets are accessible by public transport it opens them up to be utilised in a multitude of ways by a multitude of people – teenagers and pensioners who perhaps can’t drive, day-trippers from elsewhere and people who simply don’t have the luxury of owning a car.

What can the Government do to help our struggling high streets?

They need to help local communities to help their high street.Local authorities need more funding for the unkeep of public spaces, grants for improved shop fronts, and lower business rates to help start-up businesses.

The Government could also introduce a zonal system for development management in town centres. I am not a firm believer in zonal planning across the board but the retail and leisure market move so quickly the planning system cannot keep up. We must provide Local Authorities with the means to adapt high streets to meet market demand -Town Centre Action Plans, Development Briefs, Supplementary Planning Guidance, it doesn’t matter what it is badged, as long as they can be reviewed and updated every 2-5 years.Such documents need to be part of the Development Plan and Local Authorities need to have the funding and expertise to execute them.

As we all adapt to the post-Covid world, what is the immediate challenge facing our high streets?

Staying viable!  Many retailers are going bust but more importantly, lots of landlords are too. People still need to shop and they will always want to meet up with friends, and the high street should be that place of choice. We just need to make sure that the high street is still there and attractive enough to draw people in when lockdown eases.

Read Nicole’s latest blog entitled “Helping high streets survive”.

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