What evidence of town centre trends do you use in determining priorities for improving your town centre?
When our day-to-day work is focused on understanding and addressing the issues affecting town centres, it comes as a surprise that evidence is not driving change in every community.
As the review of People and Places’ approach to ‘Understanding Town Centre Trends’ published on the Government’s Great British High Street web site states, the premise for our work is that “improving your town centre without first investigating the issues, is like baking a cake without knowing the ingredients”.
The Level of Evidence Used in Managing Change
So when we recently undertook a survey of 11 towns in the East Midlands and South Yorkshire to see how performance monitoring is used to inform town centre improvements and set priorities, the findings came as a surprise. When asked if town centre performance monitoring is undertaken, six of the 11 towns responded that it is. Of these only four responded that data is routinely collected.
Analysis of the data routinely collected in the four towns showed that footfall and vacancy rates are amongst the indicators most routinely monitored. These are important quantitative data sets which are often referred to by national policy makers and in the media.
The survey showed though that qualitative data including customer views and business perceptions are much less routinely collected. Such qualitative indicators often provide very important insights in to issues and point to potential remedies for alleviating headline symptoms. None of the towns reported that they collect data on customer origins.
The ready availability of town centre performance data in a clear and meaningful format is important in ensuring that it is readily used to increase stakeholder engagement and inform decision making. Again though, only four towns reported that performance data is made available publicly.
Understanding of Issues and Priorities
When asked about current priorities, it is as first surprising that there were clear responses for all towns despite an apparent dearth of data on the nature of issues. Respondents gave a range of answers that can be broadly divided in to commercial (vacancies; footfall; retail mix; marketing) and physical issues (traffic and transport; new development; environment). Overall, these responses indicate the breadth of priorities facing town centres as well as perhaps the focus of different professional disciplines. They also perhaps point to a need for our own evidence gathering to drill down in more detail on the physical issues that impact on the use of town centres. How much and in what ways, for example, is traffic congestion impacting on customers’ ability to access and enjoy their local town centre?
Disappointing in some ways that the seemingly limited use of data to drive change might be, these responses also highlight the pressures that local authorities are under to resource and respond to a wide range of issues. As specialists committed to the evidenced-based revitalisation of town centres, we need to continue to raise awareness about the simple survey tools available. We also need to respond to feedback from our own evidence in this survey and ask is there more we can do help create an understanding of town centre challenges across different professional disciplines. That is the value of objective evidence –it makes you think!
For more details of the survey findings contact Chris Wade via firstname.lastname@example.org
Read more about Understanding Town Trends and download a summary of four years’ evidence used by Our Bury St. Edmunds BID as one of our free tasters: http://people-places.co.uk/free-tasters/