Figures from Urban Observatory have revealed that Newcastle city centre footfall is still over 50% lower than figures recorded before the pandemic.

Footfall pre-local lockdown through the city centre in August reached just under 2.5m people, a stark contrast to the 5.4m who ventured into the city centre back in January. 

Although the government’s ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme offered a glimmer of hope, adding an average of 14k people each day (Monday to Wednesday), membership group Developing Consensus is arguing that the reimagination of our town and city centres is absolutely critical if we’re to recover declining footfall long-term.

“The current Covid crisis has accelerated the need for change in many town and city centres and some tough choices have to be made – but it also presents an opportunity to create new, much more attractive destinations” argues Neil McMillan, Managing Director of iMpeC Developments and part of the ‘Enabling Development’ steering group at Developing Consensus.

The group, which is made up of 100+ development and regeneration specialists, proposes that an increase in housing, leisure and recreation spaces is key to revitalising and future-proofing our town and city centres, delivering more liveable and vibrant communities.

Neil said: “The retail footprint in many areas is now too large for what is needed by the community. It’s clear there needs to be a different mix of interests in our town and city centres if high streets are to succeed. Focusing purely on re-energising retail is now outdated – high streets need to be about much more than just shopping.

“The development of more housing within centres, rebuilding thriving communities close to our high streets is essential in transforming the life of our major town and cities, putting communities at the heart of our high streets. The offer within many centres also needs to be much more attractive – give people fresh reasons to visit. You just have to look at the unprecedented use of parks and green spaces during the Covid crisis to recognise that spaces for recreation are highly valued by our communities. 

“These elements such as housing and leisure can play a critical role in revitalising centres. Getting the mix of these early phases of development right is critical, offering a better quality of experience that will encourage people to visit and to stay longer. Increased employment and retail will follow.” 

A raft of grants and government budget made available over recent years has helped directly support independent retailers, sought to bring empty properties back to life, and has helped drive forward significant improvements in the public realm. While this support has been welcome for high streets across the UK, it hasn’t tackled the root cause of why town centres have been in decline for many years. 

Adrian Hill, Partner at Square One Law and part of the ‘Enabling Development’ group, said: “Local authorities need to take a long-term view of developing town and city centres that will thrive for 20, 30 or 40 years to come, developing a positive vision that will regenerate the heart of towns, cities and their communities. Centres must remain relevant to the communities they serve. The creation of thriving and attractive destinations that bring people together delivers positivity and economic growth. Change of this scale and speed can only be achieved by urgently developing a fresh strategic vision for our town centres.

“Authorities need a fresh approach to be able to purchase and assemble land and to do it at pace. Fragmented ownership of real estate in town centres has significantly hindered development and has been seen as one of the key barriers to change. A refreshed willingness to use compulsory purchase powers, and to use the powers quickly, coupled with additional funding from the government, would help local authorities better build the potential of our town centres in a more integrated way, responding to community need, without reliance on retail.”

The existing compulsory purchase powers framework, if used properly, can support effective and efficient urban regeneration. It aids the assembly of land for essential infrastructure investment and future development, and can support the revitalisation of communities.

“A bold vision to rebuilding town and city centres and their communities through innovative development, to include a mix of residential, leisure and recreational and culture as the catalyst, coupled with a renewed willingness to utilise compulsory purchase powers at pace must be considered as a route to the future to help our centres achieve their economic potential.”