Town and city centres have always been places where people come together to trade, to socialise, to do business. Historically they formed at places where it was most productive to do these things, at the ford of a river, or at a strategic cross-roads. For this reason, they often include the greatest concentrations of heritage assets and sensitive townscape environments.
But there has been little activity in town centres over the past year. Shops have been shut, restaurants empty, offices unused. The pandemic has accelerated the decline of high street retail and the move to online shopping, and the forced experiment of home working has proved that we don’t all have to go into town every day to get things done. The implications are potentially massive for the sustainability of public transport, retail, hospitality and some leisure uses in our town centres.
While some worry that all this behavioural change will lead to the loss of sensitive townscape environments through redevelopment, our experience is that imaginative investors, clients and consultants, as well as dynamic local authorities, tend to see opportunities to make better places out of crises like this. Of course, the numbers have to add up, but historic town centres have real economic value. They support tourism, and coupled with the right uses, encourage people to stay throughout the day and into the evening. The presence of heritage assets has also been shown to promote well-being, while many businesses actively seek to be located in historic buildings.
The post-pandemic world offers an opportunity to look at our historic town and city centres afresh, and to regenerate them in a way that brings back people to live and work, and to benefit from the economies of scale and cultural vitality that comes from being close together. Iceni is already working with architects focussed on how to retrofit and re-use the best historic retail buildings, and clients who want to promote mixed-use town and city centre projects that are better designed, include a generous public realm and accommodate a critical mass of people to support vital services.
The role the statutory designation system, of local authorities and local interest groups, in defining what is special and should be kept, and what is less good and might be acceptably lost, is critical in all of this. There are dangers in how permitted development rights can allow poor conversions of non-listed buildings while, conversely, poor council decisions can mire good schemes in drawn out and expensive public inquiries. We at Iceni believe that a well designed and properly managed system of development control in the historic environment inevitably adds to the long-term value of a regenerated area, while poorly managed systems stall regeneration and discourage investment in our historic town and city centres.