As uses other than retail become important for town and city centres, there is a vital role for communities to help drive change.

Last week, we got to meet two very active place-focused community groups. Chester Civic Trust were concluding a series of winter lectures with a look at the future of the high street, whilst the London Society were debating the future of the high street beyond retail.

In Chester, our Co-Chair Simon Quin spoke to a packed theatre about the changing high street, looking at how out of town shopping, online retail, technology changes and other factors have led to headlines about store closures. Simon spoke about the policy response, from the emergence of Town Centre Management in the late 1980s, to changes to planning policy and the Town Centres First approach, through the introduction of legislation to permit Business Improvement Districts, the Mary Portas Review and the latest initiatives to support town centres such as the High Street Fund, Open Doors, Perfect Day and the proposed Task Force.

From discussions before and after the lecture, it was clear that those attending want a city centre that is attractive and active. A place that is lively and sustainable and so part of the lecture looked at how town and city centres are changing and diversifying and the importance of this to vitality and viability. Research undertaken by the Institute has identified some two hundred factors that contribute to this, but has also identified which are the most important. Simon spoke about these 25 factors and how they related to the attractions of the centre, its accessibility, the quality of experience or amenity and to actions necessary to stimulate interventions, market and promote the centre, and maintain it as an attractive location. He spoke about the processes involved in addressing challenges to town centres and the need for leadership and partnership through community engagement in response to the challenges now facing centres.

Questions were broad ranging and prompted much discussion, from planning policy to business rates, from property values to best practice. Many of those present were very familiar with high street change and had informed views on the challenges that lie ahead. According to Civic Voice, "civic societies provide a focus for voluntary and community action to improve the places where people live, work and relax. They champion the importance of these places to decision makers and opinion formers in business, politics, government, the media, the voluntary sector and elsewhere.". That is clearly evident in Chester and in many other places with active groups.

Simon also spoke to the London Society last week, this time to an audience interested in the future of the high street beyond retail. Hosted by Jane Clossick, Senior Lecturer in Urban Design at London Metropolitan University, the evening event opened with Dr Gayle Rogers who spoke of her work to take over a small library that was being closed in Ynyshir in Rhondda Cynon Taff. She took on a lease of the library to open a selling art gallery which has attracted artists from around the region. Gayle spoke of the importance of the gallery being on the high street and the sense of community this creates.

The second speaker was Melisssa Meyer who now works for the Greater London Authority but previously worked with We Made That, an architectural practice that co-authored research with LSE on 'High Streets for All'. Melissa described the work undertaken in three London high streets to understand the varied nature of their offer and the social value of high streets. The research has looked at the wider value society places on their high streets, which may, in part, be why so many civic societies are so involved in the future of their town and city centres.

Simon was the final speaker and explored how high streets are adapting to offer more than retail but noted that retail itself is changing. He explained that overall London's town centres are performing better than centres in other parts of the country but that many still have challenges.

A very engaged discussion session followed, looking, as in Chester, at business rates, planning policy and the impact of permitted development changes, but also at the loss of EU funding for town centres, and at the challenges of starting a business in a high street. The session also looked at examples of widespread community engagement and Simon noted the approach in Altrincham and its change from bearing a 'ghost town' tag to its recognition as England's Best high Street in 2018 and the community engagement in Shrewsbury as they have been developing the Big Town Plan.

Those involved in place management may not always realise the insight, expertise and enthusiasm that exists in their communities but as we look to change our high streets, they are a vital partner and should be closely involved in deciding the future for the high street.

Photo above: some of the audience at the future high street lecture