Advice: Reviving town centres by improving the historic environment

The historic cores of town centres should provide a focus for revival and townscape improvement, but local interests also need to be involved to bring in new activities, finds Ben Kochan.

Improvements to the Cathedral Quarter in Derby helped support and attract retailers (PIC Historic England)
Improvements to the Cathedral Quarter in Derby helped support and attract retailers (PIC Historic England)

"Improving the historic environments can help revitalise town centres affected by shop closures and help attract new retailers," says Louise Brennan, assistant planning director for heritage body Historic England, in the East Midlands. However, some town centres have too many shops, and the historic areas offer a basis for focusing activity, says Alistair McDonald, director at architect and masterplanning consultant Allies & Morrison. Other activities involving the local community can fill the space vacated by national retailers.

Here are four key points for reviving town centres by improving the historic environment.

1. Integrate historic features into town centre regeneration programmes

"Historic buildings and other features of a town centre often get lost with more recent redevelopments," points out McDonald. "When we’re drawing up a masterplan for a town centre we look for those features and try and integrate them back into the centre," he says. This might involve reinstating the historic street patterns or opening up views of the historic buildings," he says.

Allies & Morrison’s strategy for Guildford, in Surrey, seeks to connect the historic street pattern with the river and reduce the impact of the traffic which runs through the town.

2. Promote reuse of historic buildings

"Many historic buildings can easily be adapted to a range of uses," says Steve Bee, principal at planning consultant Steve Bee Urban Counsel. "Councils need to be flexible in allowing new uses for vacant shop units," he suggests, pointing out that their original use may not have even been shops.  "Many are iconic buildings, which can lead the regeneration of that part of the town centre," he says. Bee points to the early twentieth century Philips buildings in Eindhoven, in the Netherlands which became redundant when the electronics company closed its operation there. The buildings have been reused for a range of housing and leisure. "The industrial heritage has been used to create a new quarter of the town and help it recover from the loss of a major employer," Bee points out.

"Councils need to facilitate the reuse of space above shops for housing to bring a greater residential population into town centres," says Martin Blackwell, an independent place management consultant. "This often requires creating new entrances in historic shop fronts to access the flats above, which the planners need to allow," he says.

3. Work with the third sector

"Voluntary organisations have creative ideas for the reuse of historic buildings, and local authorities and the property owners need to work with them," says Gavin Richards, operations manager at the Architectural Heritage Fund.

The fund has been allocated £15 million to support groups looking to take over a building in a town centre as part of the government’s future high streets fund. "The groups could propose a wide range of new uses, including local services, leisure and community facilities," he says. 

Richards points to the example of the reuse of the Havens department store in Southend, by the charity Age Concern. "Age Concern has taken a lease on the bottom two floors of the listed building to use them for community facilities," he said. Havens closed the store some time ago but will continue to run their business online from the top floor.

4. Improve the historic environment

"Improving the quality of the historic environment can help the economy of town centres," says Historic England’s Brennan. She points to the success of Historic England’s programme in the Cathedral Quarter, in Derby. The quarter was badly affected by the opening of a large retail complex on the other side of the city centre, which took many of the large multiples away. Working with the property owners and retailers, the historic shop fronts in the Cathedral Quarter were restored and the overall environment was improved.

"This helped the independent stores that were still there and attracted others," she says. "There are retailers who prefer operating from historic shops," she explains. Historic England has also received £40 million from the government fund, which is intended to take forward similar initiatives in other town centres. "We are looking for well focused bids from local authorities to improve the quality of their town centres," she says. It is expected to fund up to 60 town centre initiatives.

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