A generation ago architects, planners and economists were mourning the death of the traditional high street. Small independent retailers were being priced out by the new arrivals – indoor shopping centres occupied by big glamorous multinational retail chains.
Now another major upheaval is getting underway. Many of those shopping centres –some now two or three decades old – are losing some of their sheen (not to mention some of their most valued tenants) and are no longer the retail magnets they once were.
Shoppers have discovered that there’s something even more convenient, more comfortable and much easier than driving to a big indoor shopping centre: and that’s shopping from the comfort of their own front room.
When you shop online, you don’t even have to leave the sofa – let alone get in a car and drive into town. You choose what you want and they’ll deliver; and if you change your mind, they’ll collect your return too.
Over the past two years the enforced isolation imposed by a series of Covid-19 lockdowns has hastened the switch to online shopping and fewer people now physically visit the shops.
Consequently the shopping centres are beginning to see the tumbleweed of neglect blowing off the high street and through their malls.
The past two years have witnessed a series of high-profile casualties in the retail sector with big names like Debenhams, Burton, Dorothy Perkins and Laura Ashley disappearing.
And in March 2020, Intu Properties, owner of some of the UK’s biggest shopping centres – including Manchester’s Trafford Centre, the Lakeside Shopping Centre in Thurrock and the Braehead Centre in Glasgow – collapsed with £4.5bn of debt.
Now, in towns and cities across the UK, many of these shopping malls are being demolished to make way for new developments that are less dependent on retail and very often incorporate a large residential component.
One of those making the most of this new trend is Willmott Dixon, which is accumulating a growing portfolio of town-centre redevelopment contracts – particularly in northern England – as local councils seek to breathe new life into their communities.
Most recently, Willmott Dixon has landed the main contract for the Spindles Town Square redevelopment for Oldham Council and last year Nottingham City Council awarded the company the main contract to clear away the city’s Broadmarsh Centre for future redevelopment.
“Oldham is a £45m job over four areas,” says Anthony Dillon, northern area managing director for Willmott Dixon. “A large part involves demolition of the TJ Hughes store and adding new retail and office space for the city council. That will free up the council’s old office block for redevelopment or demolition,” he says.
Another recent win for Willmott Dixon is a multi-million pound contract for Transport for Greater Manchester to deliver a new transport interchange with a rooftop park and associated residential accommodation in Stockport town centre. This is part of a major redevelopment scheme for the town.
“I was walking around Stockport only yesterday and couldn’t help noticing a resurgence,” says Dillon. “There’s a noticeable shift in the retail sector, and it’s being driven by independents.”
Retail in the Greater Manchester area has been dominated for the past two decades by the Trafford Centre. Located a few miles west of Manchester city centre, this is the UK’s third-largest shopping centre and is a textbook example of how retail conglomerates have impacted the traditional high street.
“I live in Altrincham,” says Dillon. “It used to be a typical busy market town but it really suffered when they opened the Trafford Centre.”
The local independent retailers couldn’t compete with the big chains lining the malls of the Trafford Centre and were quickly abandoned by shoppers who flocked to the glamorous, and very convenient, facilities offered by the new shopping complex.
In 2010, Altrincham was branded a ‘ghost town’ by the national press, with a vacancy rate of 30% – the highest in the UK. As local residents chose to shop and socialise elsewhere, Altrincham saw a decline in civic pride and public realm.
“It soon became a standing joke that Altrincham had more charity shops than any other town in England,” says Dillon. “But it’s recently reinvented itself. People are looking for that different experience and that often means little independent outlets.”
According to Dillon, the shift in retail patterns is good for town centres. With their online shopping needs catered for by all the major retailers, those venturing out are now looking for a new experience, hence the independent retailers, cafes, bars and restaurants now springing up.
Another positive trend is the return of residential use to our urban centres. “People want to replace some of the old retail space with new residential developments – that’s certainly what we’re seeing up here,” says Dillon.
The Stockport redevelopment is a case in point. Willmott Dixon is currently overseeing demolition of the old bus station to make way for the new interchange. But this scheme will also deliver 196 new residential units – as well as the roof-top park. “It’s all about getting more footfall into the centre of town,” explains Dillon.
“Without a doubt, this trend is gathering pace,” he continues. And he says the Covid-19 pandemic, instead of delaying projects, has had the opposite effect: “Covid has accelerated what was already happening. Local authorities have decided they must do something to revitalise their economies.”
Another crucial factor, says Dillon, is the government’s much-anticipated levelling-up agenda. Along with the promise to “get Brexit done”, levelling-up was Boris Johnson’s key election pledge in the run-up to the 2019 general election.
It must have struck a chord with voters in the towns served by Willmott Dixon’s northern division because the wholesale shift to the Conservatives in the traditional Labour heartlands – the so-called ‘red wall’ seats in the north of England – was instrumental in delivering victory for the Tories. It was helped, of course, by the emphatic rejection by erstwhile Labour supporters of Jeremy Corbyn’s brand of leadership.
When the government’s levelling-up white paper was published in February, the response was relatively low-key. Many of the 12 “missions” identified in the document lacked detail and some were little more than a reiteration of policies and initiatives that were already in place. The National Audit Office (NAO) said that the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) “has a limited understanding of what has worked well in previous local growth programmes due to a lack of consistent evaluation or monitoring.”
Nevertheless, the NAO pointed out that, as of November 2021, central government had committed £11bn through policies to support the regeneration of towns and communities across the UK between 2020-21 and 2025-26, including £4.8bn for the Levelling Up Fund, £2.6bn for the UK Shared Prosperity Fund and £3.2bn for the Towns Fund.
According to Dillon, these initiatives are having a positive effect in the north of England. “These funds will no doubt help town centres,” he says. “There are a number of schemes that we are working on that wouldn’t have gone ahead without the government’s levelling-up agenda.”
One example he cites is Bolton Medical College, a £20m project which stalled a few years ago at the design stage: “After publication of the levelling-up white paper, it got going again.”
Interestingly, this might be one example of a project where Covid-19 really did have a detrimental effect. According to Dillon, the viability of a new college was called into question when the client raised concerns about potential student numbers.
“A lot of universities were nervous as hell when Covid came along and everything switched to remote learning,” says Dillon. “But now they’re seeing a big surge in numbers for the September intake, so it’s coming back strongly.”