Viewpoint: The Timpson Report on reviving town centres

Yesterday’s publication of the ‘Timpson Report’ on the challenges facing town centres made wide-spread national headlines, and for good reason.

The report came from a panel which includes retail expert Sir John Timpson, appointed by High Streets Minister Jake Berry MP to “diagnose issues affecting our high streets and town centres and advise on measures to keep them thriving”.

A useful spotlight

The state of our town centres is a serious issue that doesn’t seem to have had a lot of focused national air-time since The Portas Review on high streets seven years ago. And if town centre shop closure statistics are taken in isolation, they paint a pretty gloomy picture across the UK. However, the focus of the Timpson Report is wider than just ‘retail high streets’, recognising that town centres need to be broader hubs for their communities as places for enterprise, public services, social and cultural activity and interaction. Both the Portas Review and the Timpson Report have shone a useful spotlight on the role and future of town centres.

Bottom-up approach

At just 13 pages in length, the Timpson Report feels fairly lightweight, but it does offer some sensible suggestions for tackling the issues facing our town centres. The recommendations include, for example, ensuring a community-focused method, and I fully agree with taking a bottom-up approach. Interestingly, our own recent work in South Wales, which involved developing a strategy for five town centres in Blaenau Gwent, concluded something similar. Our report suggested: “It is important that projects for the town centres grow from within and build upon and develop established points of community and entrepreneurial energy and activity. Building on existing activity, there is also potential for synergies between people and organisations to join things up, generate new ideas and initiatives and to combine effort and resources to make things happen.” So while it’s important to respond to specific challenges faced by the local community – which the Timpson report also recognises – we’re certainly in agreement on a community-focused, bottom-up approach.

One ‘Champion’, or many?

In our report, however, we identified some potential champions for change that were evident in every community we worked with. These included:

  1. Beacons. These are organisations and individuals involved in activity that shines out as creative, dynamic and invested in pride and a desire to benefit the local community.
  2. Catalysts. Primarily these are organisations with resources, expertise and a remit to deliver beneficial change.
  3. Inspiration. There are a variety of people whose achievements can provide inspiration and help define positive perceptions within and reaching beyond the local area.

While the Timpson report talks about the need for each town to have a ‘Town Centre Champion’ to drive plans forward, our work suggests this can be a more mixed, collaborative, joint ‘leading role’. Our report suggests bringing together a variety of skills, interests, energy levels and experience from organisations and individuals alike who can help make beneficial change happen.

By the people, for the people

But either way, the nub of the issue is really the importance of giving local people the power to progress. We will be watching with interest as the details of the £675m Future High Streets Fund continue to unfold and the nature of the work that’s deemed eligible for funding is revealed. For some town centres, this funding is very much needed, but it does need to used by the people, with the people and for the people to make long-term change happen.