Regeneration of town centres

Tuesday 9 February 2016

© Greater London Authority

London’s town centres should concentrate more on intensification, residential and becoming mixed use areas focused on ‘experience’ than retail alone.

That was one of the key themes to emerge from a conference on the regeneration of town centres held at NLA yesterday.

Kicking off was William McKee, chair of the Outer London Commission, which is preparing its final report for London mayor Boris Johnson, who said that the key issues were how suburban London could help to meet projected population growth in terms of housing supply, responding to the loss of employment space and to ‘profound’ changes in retailing.   But in talking to outer London politicians McKee said he believed they would rather go out into the Green Belt than intensify their areas. ‘The number of local authorities looking at Green Belt for housing supply is ‘exponentially increasing’, he said. New permitted development rights are eroding office space by as much as 40% in some town centres, he said, while the move to online and fall in retail floorspace is ‘quite profound’. One of the answers was for town centres to look to diversification and the creation of more purpose-built residential properties, along with effective management of leisure, culture and hotels provision. But public services such as libraries and other facilities need to be brought back in too.

John Lewis property director Jeremy Collins said that the days when his firm was all about shops were long gone, although it has doubled the size of its retail estate since 2001. The retailer is ‘going back to the future’ by including extra services in its shops such as beauty spas and opticians, mirroring the hairdressers it had in store 70 years ago. ‘Fundamentally my belief is all about people and places’ ,he said. ‘The quality of the environment has to be top notch. It’s how you curate the space and mix of uses – the clone high street is dead.’

Allies and Morrison director Steve Walker said that online has taken away the ‘drudgery’ from the high street, leaving town centres to concentrate more on the ‘experiential thing’. The architect is working in Kingston on a flexible masterplan that focuses on the importance of the public realm, drawing on the ‘palimpsest’ of the past. Perhaps the future of the retail park could aid London’s quest for more housing, suggested GL Hearn director Ben Wrighton, especially since many of them sit in areas well connected by public transport. Merton, moreover, said futureMerton manager Paul McGarry is focused on town centre projects and the public space and experience of places, with key schemes in south Wimbledon and elsewhere.

Croydon, meanwhile, will shortly be getting a Boxpark, which aims to echo the success of its Shoreditch site, but centred on the food and beverage offer and events, said the company’s development director Matthew McMillan. But London’s stations also have a role to play in town centre regeneration, with TfL head of property management Chris Townend saying they have the capacity to become community hubs on some of the 5700 acres of land TfL owns in London. Or there is the approach taken in Haringey to rethinking the high street, said Cllr Alan Strickland. In Tottenham and Wood Green, for example, the council is delivering some 10,000 new homes, 9,000 new jobs, and capitalizing on ‘a transport revolution’ including Crossrail 2.

In Clapham, meanwhile, a public/private approach bore fruit for developer U+I, said its creative director Martyn Evans, but also for the local authority, which was able to benefit from a new library, doctor’s surgery and sports centre, paid for by selling ‘poncey flats’. Elsewhere in Lambeth, said its programme director Sandra Roebuck, in places like West Norwood the emphasis is on improving high streets and driving investment. Evans said it was adopting a similar public/private approach in Deptford, albeit through adding a curated temporary space in an old train carriage which had brought footfall and interest – even from Jamie Oliver. The scheme under construction now is by architects Rogers Stirk Harbour, who met regularly at the train carriage to develop the project with the local community, over tea and buns. ‘I leave you with three words’, said Evans, in summary of much of the conference’s main themes. ‘Partnership – super important’, he said, ‘responsibility – super important; long- term: super-important.’

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