Towns and cities in the UK are changing, and fast. Trends in retail that have been building up for some years have accelerated with the pandemic and are driving big changes in the sector. At the same time employees who can work from home are doing so or adopting hybrid working, putting pressure on the traditional office model and further reducing city centre footfall.
KPMG expects two effects to follow. First, consider the non-uniform impact of the fall in bricks-and-mortar retail and rise in home working. City centres and big destinations have come off worst from these trends, while district high streets close to where people live have fared far better as new businesses have sprung up to fill service gaps.
This has generated a lot of excitement about the 15-minute neighbourhood: areas in which residents can meet most of their daily needs, from work and school to healthcare and retail, while travelling mainly by foot, bike or public transport. More and more urban leaders are seeing how this concept is both workable and desirable, offering a sustainable way of life for residents and business while providing opportunities for small entities and good community cohesion.
The second effect from looking further into the future to ask: what may happen to our cities in the next five years?
With home working here to stay and online retail continuing to grow, KPMG believes that the benefits to 15-minute neighbourhoods will become ever clearer and more cities and towns will look to adopt his model. At the same time, larger businesses will want to consolidate their premises: with employees working from home more they will need fewer sites. The places that keep those sites are likely to be the largest towns and cities with the best transport connections to which more people will be able to commute.
All these trends and effects show why one size no longer fits all in the approach to urban planning. Some cities and towns will benefit from hybrid work patterns; others will lose out when employers move out. Physical retail will become tailored to the areas served, with more local and specialist retailers on our district high streets, and transport links will depend on the services available in the area.
The challenge for local authorities is they will all have different problems and need tailored solutions for their individual challenges. After carrying out a diagnostic of their area, an assessment of what a place can offer and of the issues facing it, the question facing civic leaders is: what do we do about this?
A place of purpose
KPMG believes this is where a place of purpose comes in: a sense of what makes a place special and how planning revolves around this. This purpose could encompass a mix of any of a number of factors from retail to culture, residential to office, or heritage to healthcare. Each town, city and district has its own strengths and its community has the best idea of what it wants to be known for.
For instance, new towns which offer plenty of space and good communication links but do not have much heritage could focus on attracting industries such as logistics or digital technology. Market towns with picturesque surroundings and beautiful buildings sandwiched between industrial cities have more to offer tourists and residents than attracting new industry.
Purpose-based change is already happening. A KPMG client in the north east identified that its retail sector was too large, acquired shopping centres and rationalised the offer, using the freed-up space for a park and civic amenities.
Other larger metropolitan areas are working to attract specific business sectors, such as research, manufacturing and innovation districts.
The additional opportunities, set out in the Government’s Levelling Up missions, for place based devolution, redistribution of grant funding and encouragement of local dynamism mean there’s never been a better time to act.
Considering the place’s purpose helps towns and cities shape a positive message. This promotes the area and reinforces inward investment and inbound tourism, leading to economic growth and regeneration. If a location already has a robust brand, investors are more likely to understand what the place has to offer and be more open to locating there; increased activity then follows.
For example, a large regional city has historically concentrated on promoting the benefits of the city without talking about the lifestyle on offer in its wider region. The city council is now looking with its regional partners at its branding to make the connection between the area being a great place to live in order to increase the region’s overall attractiveness, creating the potential for greater holistic benefit.
Every urban centre has its own unique advantages and challenges and KPMG does not have the answers for them all. But as the leading advisor on devolution, local government reorganisation and development of innovation districts, we offer a process and a methodology to help each town and city look at their locations in the context of the surrounding area to consider its strengths and possibilities, and the challenges to success.
We work with clients to help locations establish their niche and purpose, articulate their unique brand and vision, and suggest interventions that can help achieve this purpose by attracting the investment and making the changes needed. This process is already underway in many places as the pandemic has forced them to reimagine their identities and come up with a better-defined vision to share with potential residents, businesses, investors and tourists.
Make no mistake, the size of the challenge is enormous. Authorities do not have the capacity to do everything they might want to. But the worst thing they can do is nothing – to wait for a mega-project that doesn’t happen or for government funding that may never arrive – while others escape inertia to forge ahead.