Improving a town centre without first investigating the issues is like baking a cake without knowing the ingredients. The COVID-19 pandemic has added to the list of ingredients that we need to understand as part of a successful recovery.
An essential way for your council to begin developing a strategy for revitalising a town centre is to measure key indicators and gauge local opinion. From this it is possible to identify the issues; begin to develop tailored responses and hopefully demonstrate success.
Councils are especially well-placed to lead such evidence gathering because of the breadth of a council’s responsibilities. This involves combining otherwise disjointed data held by different departments and partner organisations.
Reviewing desk-top data
The obvious place for your council to start developing an understanding of a town or city centre is to work with partners to gather and review all existing evidence. Available sources of information may include local plan background data; retail needs studies; traffic studies; parking reviews and usage data; neighbourhood planning surveys; tourism strategies; cultural and leisure strategies.
As the Southwold case study demonstrates, such a desk-top review of existing evidence will help you in beginning to understand issues, spotting gaps in knowledge, engaging with stakeholders and identifying necessary further research.
Waveney District Council has supported the Southwold Coastal Community Team in developing an evidence-base to underpin its work revitalising the town centre. This involved gathering key performance data and surveying stakeholder perceptions about the town centre. The findings helped in understanding concerns about long-term business confidence and customer satisfaction to inform strategy development, project planning and funding bids.
Case study: The Digital High Street Project, Warwickshire
Digital technology can provide huge advantages to businesses in town centres and other places if take-up and future opportunities can be properly understood. The Digital High Street Project aims to help place managers understand and improve the ways that local consumer-facing business are adopting digital technologies.
Case study: Tracking footfall in Nuneaton
Find out how Nuneaton is tracking footfall through the COVID 19 pandemic and how this is helping them with interventions to help businesses as well as identify business opportunities and poorly performing areas.
In leading a council’s response to local town centres issues, it will be important to track national town centre and city trends with partners. Regular updates tracking national town centre trends are provided by the People & Places Partnership who helped compile this toolkit. Importantly these updates cover a range of issues and opportunities that are part of the multi-faceted appeal of town centres as indications of changing performance and customer behaviour following the COVID-19 crisis.
Using a ‘suite’ of performance indicators
Councils can use quantitative indicators in assessing the town centre performance including footfall, foot-flow, vacancy rates, parking occupancy, rental levels, business mix, community assets, public services, customer origins and purpose of visits. As the case study of Warwickshire towns shows, councils can also increasingly use digital data such customers’ mobile phone activity and social media interactions as cost-effective and confidential ways to help understand how they use a place.
Understanding ‘personality' of place
Qualitative surveys can be used to tell more about the ‘personality’ of a place including its users’ and non-users’ perceptions, the confidence of businesses, the impacts of place on profitability and sentiments around identity and place branding. In Southwold, for example, such work highlighted low levels of future business confidence and customer concerns about recent changes despite a very strong place-brand.
Re-evaluating and adapting post-COVID 19
THE IPM Recovery Framework places an important emphasis on evidence-led re-evaluation and adaptation. Existing performance indicators can be supplemented by additional research on COVID-19 impacts, such as performance of different business types and places plus stakeholder surveys of changing behaviour/practices.
- footfall, foot-flow, traffic and parking occupancy
- businesses types to guide support and understand impact of lockdown
- stakeholder surveys to gauge impacts and changing behaviour/practices.
The methodologies /findings of national surveys and local indicators need to be combined to give localised understanding and benchmarking.
An additional challenge is that customer attitudes, behaviour and necessary business practices are likely to be fluid throughout the transitionary period.
As the crisis stage unfolded and thoughts turned to pre-recovery planning, evidence of impacts and analysis of future implications created a picture of changing business practices and public perceptions. As these resources on looking beyond COVID-19 explain, it is important to begin the pre-recovery process by understanding the emerging national evidence-base and supplementing it locally.
Putting the groundwork in to gathering performance measures and perceptions provides councils with a factual basis for engaging stakeholders, jointly agreeing objectives and creating a shared action plan for town centre revitalisation. By maintaining a constant focus on agreed indicators and routinely monitoring changes, you will be successful in keeping responses on-track and clearly identifying impacts.