How do we breathe new life and ideas into our towns and cities?

By Lyndon Campbell, parter, Bevan Brittan

Lyndon Campbell

There have been many parts of our lives impacted in the last 18 months by the pandemic and, for many, life has changed immeasurably.

How and where we live our lives is one of the biggest areas that has seen change and that, in turn, has seen a further transformation in our town and city centres.

It is an issue that now poses a major challenge for local authorities, planners and business alike as we look to adapt those centres to a post-pandemic market and breathe new life – and new ideas – into those spaces. But what options are available?

Thinking innovatively

Yorkshire was a real leader in terms of innovation before the pandemic took hold almost 18 months ago – and there is no reason to believe that it will be any different now. With every challenge comes an opportunity.

Expecting life in our cities and towns to return to how it was before is not a sensible strategy. Covid has changed the way people think, the way they work and, as a result, the way they plan their week.

Working from home is no longer the exception. It has become the norm for us all and any sensible plan to revive our town and city centres has to factor in that the five-days-a-week commuter routine may well have gone forever.

This is an issue which will at best stay as it is but could well deteriorate further in the coming 18 months to two years as businesses with two or three years left on leases decide not to renew and move elsewhere, or even close down sadly.

A downturn for some, a new dawn for others

However, as the centres have suffered, so the suburbs, commuter towns and outlying villages have thrived. In my local village, Boston Spa, the high street pre-Covid had five or six empty units as people chose to shop where they worked.

Eighteen months on, the picture is very different. Almost all of the units are taken and some have been re-opened by new businesses starting up and taking advantage of the boom in trade many smaller, local traders have experienced as home working drove an increase in people choosing to – and being able to – shop local.

Why can that community spirit and increased enthusiasm for local shops and cafes not be translated into the town and city centres, where people who live closer to the centres can also increasingly shop local? It may pose a challenge for some of the bigger chains and brand names that have proliferated in the past couple of decades but it could also be the catalyst for a revival of high streets that have struggled for years.

Tackling empty properties

We’ve advised many local authorities on tackling the problem of empty homes in their area, where the Enforced Sales option can be of huge benefit to both councils and the local community.

But it does not need to apply just where empty homes are an issue. If commercial premises have stood empty for years and there are viable alterative uses, then investigating the Enforced Sales route may be something which councils may increasingly have to look into.

Getting those properties back into use and benefitting the local community may be the kind of new thinking that will be needed in towns and cities across our region. It is an issue of some scale now but it is not yet being addressed. That will have to change.

And it will need imagination to do so. Not all units will be taken by businesses. A change of use may be the best option – for social and recreational purposes or other community basis.

One thing is certain. The world we knew before the pandemic begun will not return entirely. We’ll have to learn and adapt to live with Covid, and now is the time for councils, planners and businesses alike to adapt and build a new future for our towns and cities.
Yorkshire has also led the way in areas like this. I am sure it will do so again.

Lyndon Campbell is a partner in the commercial property team at Bevan Brittan in Leeds, with 20 years’ experience in landlord and tenant work, acquisitions and disposals, property finance, property development, investment property portfolios and high value and complex residential transactions.