Covid-19 has not only accelerated the decline of our highstreets, but encouraged traditional consumers to switch and favour online shopping. To prevent further damage and stimulate the growth of our town and city centres, Jonathan Wallace, Senior Director and Head of the Newcastle office at Lichfields, explains how the pandemic has opened up a new opportunity to reinvent our town and city centres, and why the visitor experience will be key to their future success.

Years ago, as we well know, town and city centres generally looked after themselves. When there was space, the private sector would always come along and fill it. Retail demand was high and centres expanded to meet demand. Even twenty years ago most centres were still performing well – we all knew about the internet and many of us had started to use it at work but not in our day-to-day lives.

However things started to change – and change quickly – with the advent of smart phones and tablets. Before we knew it, the way in which we shop began to change forever, with consumers shopping from mobile devices from the comfort of their own living room. No longer did we need to head ‘into town’ on a Saturday to do our shopping – we could do it at our convenience and use weekends to do other things, often leisure and travel. 

So gradually, over the last decade or so, we started to use our town and city centres less – and this started to impact on the viability of retailers in those centres, with there being a range of high profile casualties including household names like BHS. Against this background, even before the pandemic, there was a clear understanding that the role of our town and city centres needed to change. However, then came Covid-19 in March 2020, which acted as a catalyst, effectively speeding up a process of change that was already taking shape.

Retail casualties over the last year have increased exponentially, with key anchor stores like Debenhams and House of Fraser disappearing from the high street, leaving many centres with very high levels of vacancy.

Fortunately many of our local authorities have been quick off the mark in seeking to re-shape and re-purpose our centres – and the Government have played their part by committing significant funding to support town centres and other high street initiatives across the region. At Lichfields, we have been pleased to support several Councils in the development of new strategies and in the development of business case evidence to support related funding bids.

In January, our Town Investment Plan for Redcar was submitted to Government, while more recently we have been assisting Durham County Council in their ongoing development of proposals for Bishop Auckland Town Centre and Stockton Borough Council in developing proposals for a new urban park on the site of the 1970s Castlegate Shopping Centre. 

Covid-19 has unquestionably created a short term and immediate challenge – and a challenge that requires an urgent response. However, it has also opened up a once in a generation opportunity to deliver change in town centres – change that we can probably all acknowledge has been needed for some time. Our town centres had all started to look and feel the same – “Clone Towns” filled with the same shops, selling the same goods. They had lost what had made them special – and worth visiting – in the first place.

There is now an opportunity to recreate town centres that we want to visit – and to put them in on a footing which will meet the needs of the future rather than the past. With internet shopping available – and often more convenient – we won’t need as many shops in the future. However that doesn’t mean there won’t be any shops in town and city centres – many people will still want to go shopping because they enjoy it or they want to see and hold the goods they are buying. Indeed, there are already signs, in many centres, that new independent retailers are opening up, filling the spaces national multiples have left behind and offering product ranges with greater variety and individuality – which is great to see.

However, while shopping may be part of the mix, town centres of the future will need to offer much more than shopping. New uses – whether they be public service uses like medical centres and further and higher education colleges, residential uses, or heritage and other visitor attractions – will be much more important. And while leisure and other service uses have always been located within centres, their role will be even more important in the future. 

With so much competition, town centre experiences will be key – the sort of experiences that consumers are unable to access online. These experiences may be restaurants, hair salons or nail bars – or they may be markets, urban parks or street festivals. They will vary from town to town, as they did in the past, but all will need an experiential offer which drives footfall.  

So – our town and city centres have been hard hit by Covid-19 and will take time to recover. However, the pandemic has also opened up many new opportunities to re-shape our centres in ways which will make them better placed to meet the needs of the twenty-first century. There is, of course, much work to do, but exciting times lie ahead. 

Lichfields has most recently been shortlisted for Specialist Consultancy of the Year at the Insider Media North East Property Awards. To learn more about Lichfields and its work within town centres, visit the company’s website: