We have recently been appointed alongside our friends at DTZ to develop a delivery strategy for Stafford Town Centre.
The 5 month project will draw upon URBED's experience of working in Town Centres. This experience includes authoring the report Vital and Viable Town Centres; Meeting the Challenge (HMSO) which was commissioned by the Government in the mid 1990's to inform their town centre policy (Later to become PPG 6: Planning for Town Centres).
Since that time the ideas in the report have had a profound effect on the UK's high streets, stemming the damage done through the Laissez-faire policies of the 1980s and introducing many of the ideas used to revive the high street, most recently championed by the Portas Review.
The fundamental idea behind the Vital and Viable Town Centres report was that town centres can’t rely on the loyalty of their traditional captive markets but have to market and promote themselves, diversify their activities and make themselves much more convenient and attractive. URBED structured these ideas around the ‘4As’ which have since been used as the basis for many town centre strategies.
Attractions: The question to ask is why people would want to come into the town? Many town centre uses depend on existing footfall - they do not, in themselves, attract people but rely on people being attracted by other activities. The attractors include the larger stores, as every shopping centre developer will tell you.
However they also include markets and leisure uses, events and temporary attractions, tourist attractions and specialist retail quarters. They can also include offices (which generate good footfall during the day) and housing which generates footfall in the evening and at weekends.
Access: Places with very strong attractors (such as York) can afford to be difficult to get to. People will want to go there, come-what-may and will be willing to put up with compulsory Park-and-Ride etc… Other places need to work a little harder to make themselves easy and convenient to reach. People will not come into town if parking is difficult and expensive, if public transport is poor and if the walking experience is unpleasant. Centres competing with the free parking, offered by out-of-town centres need to pull off the difficult trick of ensuring that car access is easy and parking convenient while also not allowing themselves to be dominated by traffic, intrusive road infrastructure and surface parking .
Amenity: Attractions will only really work if people find the town attractive. They will not be attracted if it appears to be run down, dirty or strewn with litter. They will react against poor quality, shabby buildings and environments that are dominated by traffic or which feel unsafe. Towns have some advantages in this respect, being able to offer authentic environments rather than the artificial experience of out-of-town centres but while people value authenticity they still want the quality of the environment to be good.
Action: The final ‘A’ relates to the capacity of a town to do something about these issues. Out-of-town centres and malls have the advantage of single ownership and a management structure funded by service charges paid by occupants. Successful towns are those that can be equally flexible and responsive to coordinate action and address issues quickly when they arise. The town centre management movement in recent years has done a huge amount to improve town centres but it can also be achieved through effective town councils and town centre business forums.
The four As provide a framework to consider the issues faced by town centres in the round. Too many strategies only address the symptoms of problems - improving the environment of the town without providing attractions, dealing with attractions but without removing barriers to access.