Conference Report: Retail development in historic towns: time for reflection

View the speakers' presentations as pdf files

Delegates arriving in York on Wednesday afternoon were taken on a tour of the City Walls by City Archaeologist, John Oxley. This was followed by a Reception held in The Mansion House and hosted by The Right Honourable, the Lord Mayor of York, Councillor John Galvin, who welcomed the Forum to York - again. He alluded to the various visits in the past and the Forum’s long relationship with the City. Delegates gather outside the HospitiumIn the beautiful surroundings of the Library Gardens the conference on Thursday was held in the Hospitium – an example of a sensitive contemporary conversion of a mediaeval building for modern uses. The conference was introduced by Tony Wyatt, Executive Committee Member and Director of _space group, a very active Corporate Member of the Forum.

David Warburton, Head of Conservation, Design & Sustainable Development, presented York in the context of the topic of the conference. He considered the City to be in a very fortunate position in terms of impact from the recession but was keen to stress the importance of understanding what makes a historic town special in order to conserve its ‘specialness’, comparing it to the need to understand the habitat of threatened species . This approach did not support preserving in aspect but the importance of managing change. The City was facing many challenges ranging from pressures from the retail sector to flooding and other climate change issues.

David Caulfield, Head of City Development, explained the growth of the City and the impact of its history as a key driver of current policies. The 2008 Retail Study had been a useful exercise in developing a strategic approach to planning in the City. It identified the strengths (a larger than average percentage of independent traders) and weaknesses, and included a realistic comparison with other historic towns. From this a retail strategy was developed. Two potential sites were identified: Castle Piccadilly and York Central, and David explained the outline plans for these. He also emphasised the important of the quality of the public realm, access and traffic management, and using existing assets – for example the riverside as a walkway. Working with the community to develop a vision for the City and developing activities and animation involved more than just planners, he said, but innovative ideas too. In conclusion, David said:

  • Now is a good time to plan for the future of the City
  • Embrace the role as ‘place shapers’
  • Don’t compromise of quality
  • Collaborate
  • Include events and activities.

The passage of PPS15 and its impact on retail development was presented by Duncan McCallum, Policy Director of English Heritage. One of the opening points he made was that whilst visiting historic towns, visitors shop! Interesting statistics included:

  • Some local authorities have over 75% of their retail buildings in conservation areas
  • Over half the population visit a city or town with historic character every year (for leisure)
  • 7.8% of all listed buildings are commercial (many of which are retail)

The contribution of retail to the vitality and diversity of the offer in historic towns is significant and, conversely, heritage can be used to enhance the retail offer. He insisted that there were many measures included in the draft PPS15 which would be taken forward and that the overall impact would be positive. He commented on those that impacted on retail development which included changes to designation, more emphasis on identifying ‘significance’ and on enhancement as well as seeing the historic environment as a “positive stimulus for high quality change”. Duncan considered that, four years on, the principles put forward in the document published with HTF – “Retail Development in Historic areas” remained valid and its companion “Focus on Retail” (EHTF 2008) offered good guidance.

Ian Anderson of CB Richard Ellis began by reviewing the changes suggested in the draft PPS4 and their implications for planning and development control. There had been a shift from development control to enabling development and 10 years of a policy of ‘Town Centre First’, although still only 40% of retail is within town centres or on edge of town sites. The new PPS has developed to merge 4 & 6 as well as to include elements of 7 &13, with a guidance ‘daughter paper’ also published in draft form. These are intended to encourage positive planning and to:

  • Improve effectiveness of policies
  • Refine the framework and
  • Offer greater guidance and clarity.
Ian briefly described the ‘old system’ and then the new, including reference to the needs test and sequential assessment as well as the enhanced impact assessment. This latter he discussed in some detail, adding that definition of some of the words used (eg: “normally” and “significant”) would be helpful. But he considered overall it could potentially “help historic towns take charge of their own destiny”. The implications for planning were the requirement for LPAs to define their priorities- sustainable, economic and social - and to assess need – not just expenditure capacity but social and diversity as well. On the allocation of sites he said that ‘town centre first’ did not imply ‘town centre only’. Assessments must be ‘robust’ and evidence based, he said, in order to move away from ‘planning by appeal’.

David Boyle of the New Economics Foundation talked about retaining local distinctiveness and the ghost towns which emerged around 2003/4 followed by the clone towns of 2006/7. There was, he said a distinct ‘tipping point’ for retail areas which led to rapid decline. This was linked to the ‘leaking bucket’ metaphor for the local economy. Research has demonstrated the multiplier effect of local investment and the detrimental effect of non-local business – both economically and socially. He cited two London markets which were 34% and 29% cheaper than the local supermarket and in one case generates over £3.6m for the local economy. There are also social imperatives – for instance the importance to health of social networks. David also made links to local pride and our sense of history and suggested a number of ways in which cloning could be tackled and local assets could be maximised.


Stephen Wright, of the John Lewis Partnership, brought to the conference the retailers perspective, which it is important to understand in order to meet the challenges currently facing all sectors. He summarised these challenges and some of the policies being put in place to address them: the Government’s proposals for temporary uses in vacant units; the London Mayor looking at retail diversity and PPS4 – maintaining the focus on town centres and urging local councils to know and understand their local retail markets. He went on to describe recent developments within John Lewis and Waitrose and the challenges of town centre retail development that they faced. These included:

  • Site acquisition and site assembly
  • Design – retaining the integrity and distinctiveness of the high street, BREEAM requirements etc
  • Servicing and car parking
  • Conflict with other users
  • Infrastructure requirements
  • Costs of development &
  • Competition and trading considerations.

These were not, he said, insuperable, but retailers had to be innovative and flexible and local authorities needed to be ‘reasonable and commercial’. In addition land owners and tenants must work together with LPAs and Civic bodies in order to create “attractive and vibrant places for customers”. Most importantly, he added, regional and local planning policies needed to “support and engender distinctiveness, choice and investment”. He considered that the role of town centre managers was vital in bringing this altogether and that every Council should have one!

Following a question and answer session with the panel of speakers and lunch, delegates enjoyed a choice of walking tours of York led by officers which included focus on retail development in the City, the design context, and conservation and the management of change in the historic core.

The afternoon session opened with the presentation of joint research on impact assessment carried out by Drivers Jonas and Colin Buchanan. Jodie Brooks explained the background to the study carried out in Bristol before and after the development of the Cabot Circus retail centre. The main issue to be addressed was whether it was possible to measure quality in the urban realm. Allowing for the fact that this will mean different things to different people, the study set out to find measures which could be quantified and reviewed. The SWRDA funded research was based on the scheme which set out to improve the traditional main shopping street (Broadmead) and to reduce adverse impact from Cabot Circus, which involved planting, paving, lighting and street furniture. Jodie described the retail centres and then Martin Wedderburn explained the use of PERS, which enables objective scoring of a full range of public realm attributes, including: seating, litter, security and movement, which can be broken down to measure activity, walk speed and footfall. The findings will facilitate the quantification of the benefits of the scheme and can be blended with other measures, such as rents, vacancy levels and dwell times and the review, due later this year, will test these factors against a comparator (Horsefair, Bristol) . However, the additional factor – the impact of the recession – will have to be accounted for in these findings.

Diane Wehrle, Director of Springboard Research Ltd, presented the research she and her team had carried out into footfall trends and the performance of historic towns. Town centres, she said, accounted for 91% of the 600 top shopping locations and footfall in these places accounted for 84% of total footfall in these top 600. However, there were many challenges facing town centres, (compared with out of town or edge of town retail venues). Of these, most important to historic town centres were: the built environment, car parking, traffic congestion, tourism, diversity and store sizes. She explained the rationale for monitoring footfall – as one of the four primary indicators of town centre performance.

Working with the ATCM, Springboard has developed a National High Street Index based on 300 locations in 70 UK towns and cities, which is published monthly. This includes a range of benchmarks, one of which relates to historic towns. This data has shown that the monthly trend in historic towns differs slightly from the national trend and Diane went on to compare two case study cities – York and Chester. Very detailed information can be gleaned from the data and future trends can be identified. Diane was able to highlight some of the short term challenges and opportunities, as well as longer term challenges facing historic towns.

As a result of this work Springboard has developed an online performance measurement and benchmarking service – Milestone – having recognised the challenges facing towns and cities and the need for evidence of performance – for national policy as well as for inward investment – and the difficulties in gathering this. The application of this methodology should:

  • Support town and city centre strategies
  • Support inward investment
  • Increase understanding of what actually drives town centre performance
  • Support policies to protect the future for town centres.

Questions were invited from the floor and after a brief discussion Tony drew the conference to a close thanking the speakers and the City of York Council for their contributions to the event.