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Historic Town Centres and High Streets

Aimed at local planning authorities, owners, retailers, developers, local communities and other interested parties, this page introduces our downloadable report which looks at current retail trends and challenges and what they might mean for historic town centres and high streets.

The successful and sustained stewardship of historic retail districts, buildings, streets and spaces is closely linked with the on-going health of the retail sector.

However, in recent years social, demographic and technological trends have all combined to have an impact on town centres.  Out of town retail sites, changing shopping habits and the growth of online retailing have all had implications for the number of people using and visiting town centres and the range of shops to be found there.  

This in turn has had an impact on the local historic character seen in town centre buildings, their range of uses and street patterns.  These may well be permanent changes.

Additionally, the decline in use of a number of particular types of buildings (for example pubs, post offices and banks) has added to the problem, with reduced footfall and increased vacancy rates in some areas leading to a significant number of high streets and town centres experiencing under investment, a deterioration in the quality of the environment and potentially entering a spiral of decline.

At the same time changes to the planning system have made it easier to transform retail and office buildings into residential properties, which can have a major impact on the character of historic places.

The changing face of the high street

As a result, town centres and high streets are at a critical point.  They need to reinforce and redefine their role and function at the centre of community activities in response to these economic and social shifts.

These challenges have a particular resonance for historic town centres and high streets, where the sustained and successful stewardship of historic retail districts, buildings, streets and spaces is intertwined with the health of the retail economy.

A heritage perspective on the situation is contained in the Historic England publication The Changing Face of the High Street. This looks in detail at current retail trends and challenges and what they might mean for historic town centres and high streets.

It also includes 17 case studies where local planning authorities, developers and local partnerships have adopted innovative strategies to ensure that the historic environment can play a full and effective role in revitalising town centres and high streets.

City and town centres can suffer from a poor public realm, which mars the shopping experience and discourages visitors from lingering. 

To help counter this problem, Historic England has produced advice on improving your street.

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