Local authorities in London need targeted investment and a reform of the business rates system in order to help them revitalise their town centres.
That was the view of Sarah Cary of Enfield Council and Sophie Beagles of Ealing, speaking at Thursday’s Borough Briefings webinar session on town centre renewal.
Beagles, who ran through the borough’s ‘no-one-size-fits-all’ approach to attempting to resuscitate the high street through ‘ambitious’ measures like diversifying the offer and pushing for more cultural and meanwhile uses, said that ‘targeted investment for town centres would be much appreciated’ in order to help them recover from some of the effects of Covid-19, which have accelerated the decline of retail in particular. ‘We’re seeing that this pandemic is accelerating the pre-existing challenges that were facing our town centres, particularly in terms of consumer behaviour’, Beagles said. ‘We’re seeing it as a way of testing the market’.
Cary, who similarly took the audience through measures the authority has implemented, including support for a ShopAppy portal linking small market and other traders to a delivery service, a relaxation of licensing to allow firms to do more outside trading, and road alterations that pleased her transport engineers because of the speed they could implement them, said her response would be ‘money’ but in a different way. ‘It would be to reform the business rates system so that there is more parity between online and restaurants and shops in terms of the way they are taxed’, she said. This was especially so given that the space needed for retail units is shrinking, and, arguably, trending towards the local. There was also a place for local development orders, she said, a condensed version of which Enfield is working on.
Enfield Council is also bringing forward a three-month emergency licence for businesses to trade outdoors - which they promise to turn around within three days. Cary suggested that because of changing work patterns and people’s realisation that they can work in many places, the future town centre may have more space for local workspaces. ‘You can work from a lot of places but not everybody wants to work from their house all the time…I think there’s probably a good potential there’.
Beagles said her authority had responded with pop-up cycle lanes, encouraging more active travel and launching a campaign for people to shop local but shop safely. A cross-cutting theme would be the green recovery, she added, ensuring the local authority remains flexible and able to react quickly to changing consumer demands and ensuring that their measures are socially and economically inclusive.
In Enfield, too, Covid-19 has had an impact: ‘‘It has really focused the minds of some of our landlords and retailers about what they could be doing differently and how they could be using their space better’, said Cary.