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Revitalising Historic High Streets

The impact on historic town centres of the changing face of retail and shopping compounded by difficult economic times is explored in new English Heritage research published yesterday (Monday 8 July). The research reveals the latest retail and property trends and the implications for historic high streets and town centres over the next few years.

The research, undertaken for English Heritage by Allies and Morrison Urban Practitioners, in conjunction with Strutt & Parker and in partnership with the Historic Towns Forum, has identified a series of places across England where innovative approaches have achieved successful outcomes despite a backdrop of testing economic times. These success stories range from imaginative reuses of listed market buildings through to town centre strategies focusing on heritage and local identity, to the successful integration of new buildings in a historic part of town. 

Baroness Andrews, Chair of English Heritage said: "The challenges are not to be underestimated, but English Heritage believes that local authorities that have made the historic environment central to their retail 'offer' can go a long way to creating an attractive and viable high street."

Baroness Andrews continued: "At a time when people are increasingly looking for more to their shopping trips, these success stories show how investing in historic buildings and careful and imaginative use of street patterns in our historic towns and cities, creates successful 'destinations', places which attract people because they make shopping a much more pleasant and enjoyable experience".

The English Heritage message to councils and all involved in town centre management is:

  • People like visiting and shopping in historic areas. At a time when competitive advantage is ever-more important, a focus on town centre and high street heritage can be an important part of retaining or even creating successful places and 'destinations'.
  • identify and embrace historic character to sensitively sow the seeds of a successful development scheme
  • small scale interventions and strategies (such as many of those in this report) can often prove helpful in addressing current challenges - particularly where they complement each other and create a cumulative effect
  • smaller town centres can create a niche shopping and leisure experience to complement mainstream shopping areas
  • commitment to architectural excellence and town planning is vital
  • Focused long term investment, pooling funds from public and private sources where possible is essential
  • adapting existing buildings and fabric can offer an excellent opportunity for new town centre floorspace
  • visitors to town centres are increasingly seeking a strong leisure offer as well as an opportunity to shop.

The case studies include:

  • Rotherham town centre - using the historic character of the town centre as a positive asset and using public funds to invest and repair has resulted in footfall being up by 6% in one year.
  • Liverpool - Bold Street -shows how using historic character to establish an independent offer can complement the mainstream chains elsewhere in the city. Liverpool One  - creating a new town centre alongside the historic centre.
  • Brixton - initial use of peppercorn rents proved to be a catalyst in finding tenants for what was an under-used yet historic space, generating dramatic increases in footfall and creating a vibrant atmosphere within the listed buildings. An excellent example of responding to the current demand for leisure uses.
  • Bolton - imaginative remodelling of the listed market hall has created modern retail space within the building, while also allowing for public realm improvements in the surrounding area
  • Whitstable - the successful redevelopment of a key town centre site has proved a catalyst to steady investment in historic buildings over a long period
  • Norwich, Islington, Neston - integrating retail development within the existing historic heart of these places has been achieved without harming their heritage

Brian Raggett, partner at Strutt and Parker and contributor to the report, said: "The creation of opportunities that marry the historic features of towns and cities and deliver regeneration are more likely to occur in locations where local authorities help to promote deliverable solutions in attractive retail environments. New developments need to be more imaginative in the way in which existing buildings, including listed properties, are altered and schemes are likely to become smaller in size, around 200,000 to 300,000 sq ft. A greater level of change to the layout of a town's historic fabric may potentially need to be to embraced, following careful consideration and justification, to help secure the benefits of new investment."

English Heritage will share the research and good practice case studies with local authorities, retailers and developers. The report will challenge those who are doubtful as to what can be achieved and encourage communities to raise their aspirations for the future of their much-loved high streets.

The report can be downloaded below:


  •  The Changing Face of the High Street: Decline and Revival
    Publication Date: 08 Jul 2013
    This report is the product of research commissioned by English Heritage, in partnership with the Historic Towns Forum, to better understand what has changed in recent years. It looks in detail at the current policy and retail context and what they might mean for historic town centres and high streets.