West London’s town centres can look forward to recovery, and indeed to a potentially better future than they might have seen before the pandemic hit, according to a panel of experts at the Capital West London Build & Recover Summit.
Alex Woolf, of Romulus, said that the fact that office buildings in lockdown were completely empty had raised questions about workplace and its role in town centres. But while people have enjoyed not commuting, and we won’t be going back to normal, he felt we won’t see the death of office space.
“A short term reduction in demand is likely – there are economic issues, plus increased home working. But then there will be an increase in demand for flexible space, outside London’s Central Activity Zone. We see the beginnings of demand in west London for workspace in local centres.”
Julian Bell, leader of Ealing Council echoed that, saying that town centres in his borough were doing well. “Southall has seen an increase in activity”, he said. The challenge was for metropolitan centres which were more office based.
Indeed, research has suggested that local centres are being visited by 60% more people than pre-pandemic.
Businesses have adapted, pavements been widened, and pop up cycle lanes added. Task forces have been set up to help businesses operate in safety, and all this aims to help customers come back with confidence.
Cllr Bell said there were other threats to the high street. The expansion of permitted development rights to allow further replacement of commercial space with residential, and other uses, is a danger. To counter this, high streets will need more leisure options, better use of public space, and to be freer from air pollution.
Martyn Saunders of AY didn’t think town centres are in trouble. But he said how we harness technology will be critical. “How we use and understand data – how places are accessed, people flow, air quality, and so on will help us make intelligent decisions about how we use public realm and change places that aren’t being used,” he said.
Tech in retail will be important. There is Uber Eats, Shop Appy and more, assisting distribution of goods, but there could be more. “With data, retailers can personalise the product lines – different stores carrying different ranges because they carry what local customers want.”
“Also, data could allow the landlord/tenant relationship to change. It could give landlords confidence to change rental models, towards more participatory relationships which share pain and reward.”
The pace of data is important too. “You need to be able to react, to make decisions quickly.”
“It could be really quite exciting going forward”.
Davinia Venton of Countryside, who have a number of town centre regeneration projects progressing, thought that while homes were important it is key to create a destination. “Homes need to not be at cost of what makes centre special. Most successful centres are true multi-purpose hubs.”
Dr Steve Millington of the Institute of Place Management wante councils to step in and help. “The lesson is that not all communities have the capacity to form networks, Local Authorities can work here to help.
“We need to see more tactical urbanism and dynamic rebalancing of streets – as lockdown varies, different streetscenes can work for different places.”
He echoed Martyn Saunders on data. “You need local, granular data to enable decisions. Don’t just look at national averages,” he said.
Louise Baxter of the Harrow BID had a remarkable footfall story. “At the unlock, we had huge queues in Harrow. People were waiting 3 to 4 hours for Sports Direct and Primark. And we helped keep it all safe.”
“You need to add some quirkiness – pop-up parks and so on – to keep people busy.”
Alex Woolf saw an opportunity to create a local high street that has that full mix of uses. “Thinking about the balance of different uses within walking or cycling distance is really interesting. You need retail, commercial, leisure – the 15 minute city.”