UK: Will Vulnerable Town Centres Survive As The Larger Stores Decide To Call It A Day?

Last Updated: 16 November 2016
Article by Simon Bedford

Most Read Contributor in UK, August 2017

The news that the staple of the High Street, Marks & Spencer are potentially going to close some of their worst performing high street stores may have sent a shiver through the market on Friday – but is it as bad as we might think? Possibly not. Whilst no one would doubt the importance to the health and vitality of a town centre than someone like M&S or indeed BHS, perhaps it is time to recognise that there is life after a shop closure.

When Deloitte were appointed to produce a study into the eight principal town centres across Greater Manchester in 2011 the prognosis did not look good. Vacancy rates were on the rise, up beyond 20% in some locations, internet shopping was growing at pace (was this only five years ago) and out of town retailing, we found, hadn't really had a recession.

Tramping around the town centres of Bolton or Rochdale on a wintry Saturday morning didn't exactly fill you with great confidence and for some hanging up the sign ' town centre closed – come to our super new retail park' seemed like a logical answer.

Thankfully not everybody thought that way. Fast forward five years and we see a very different picture. Policy makers didn't throw in the towel, rather taking on board much that the report prescribed, local authorities decided to get busy and take a bold approach to town centre revitalisation. To survive, the report suggested, town centres would need to become a policy and investment priority, core investment (particularly civic functions) would need to be embedded within a town centre and in each and every case a town would need to think about its unique qualities – what could it do to attract an ever more discerning public to come and spend time and money there?

The results today are there for all across Greater Manchester and hopefully further afield to see. The success of Altrincham market, transformed under the mercurial hands of Nick Johnson and his team, has been well documented. Perhaps less so the establishment of Altrincham Forward  - a group of like - minded people who had probably got slightly bored  with the charms of Hale Barns and recognised that the delightful Altrincham deserved, and should, get a better crack of the whip. Today the shops are let and the burgeoning restaurant trade is much in evidence.

However sorting out Altrincham, it might be argued, wasn't the toughest challenge on the Greater Manchester map – what about Stockport, Rochdale or even Oldham?

Well in Stockport the Council are just about to complete the construction of new office space, a hotel adjacent to the railway station and a new cinema complex in the town centre – they have funded the lot. This is an exceptional investment strategy which will undoubtedly pay dividends. The town centre has just welcomed a new restaurant with Michelin star ambitions – unthinkable five years ago.

In Rochdale the results are also there to see – a new shopping centre, ironically with a new M&S anchor under construction, but consequent to the Council building new offices on the riverside, perhaps most exciting is the plan to redevelop the historic town hall – surely the finest Victorian town hall in the country, for alternative uses. Add to that the opening up of the River Roch at the heart of the town centre and you can witness a town centre transformed.

Not to be out done take a look at Oldham – the town hall there has been derelict for many years but has very recently opened as a new cinema complex. This project would never have moved forward without the Council underpinning it – it is bound to win awards and make a tremendous impact on the day and night time economy. Worth noting is a less eye catching but equally important move the Council have made. On Yorkshire Street, the traditional main drag, the Council have directly invested, buying up empty shop units, refurbishing them and re- letting them to independent businesses. This is an approach we expect to see replicated elsewhere as local authorities return to the retail market as landlord.

Across Greater Manchester the town centres are evolving. They are not closing, rather they are changing and adapting making sure that they can be resilient but at the same time interesting, quirky and worth a visit. If you want an traditional store I am sure you can still find one, but if you want something a bit different pop down to your local town  centre – it might be better than you thought.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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