Examples of good town centres in the East of England were explained to delegates from Berkshire and Oxfordshire at The Forum round table on February 9.

Guests agreed the increase in residential developments had helped town centres stay vibrant and leisure activities were beginning to replace shops.

Philip Waddy, managing director of WWA, said fragmented ownership can be a problem but but Jade Uko, senior account director at DevComms, said stakeholders coming together can reinvent town centres and she gave some real life examples.

She said: “I spent the last three years in economic development where we talked about the high street being under tremendous stress, seeing a high level of business failures and empty business units, and trying to reimagine our high streets.

“So it’s quite surprising that our residential clients are holding up pretty well – there’s still demand out there.

“But it does concern me. I think there will be a rent readjustment within the retail sector.

“I’ve seen successful town centres and successful high streets but the vast majority are struggling and they are struggling to find a purpose. Good examples of successful centres are where you have a collective.

“You need business, you need stakeholders and you need good political engagement and the will to transform and keep them alive.

“Colchester is quite impressive and quite successful. The BID in Colchester has done some fantastic work and there’s high occupancy rates.

“Also in smaller market towns; Leighton Buzzard in Bedfordshire is an interesting one. What you’ve got is a very good collective. A group of businesses, landlords and the council, very proactive in keeping that town centre alive and reimagining its purpose.”

REDA chief executive Nigel Horton-Baker said: “The whole retail to resi thing is driven by trends in retail, because now people are doing so much online.

“They like the showroom so people still like to go in and feel the goods but they will go home and order it online and get it sent to the local Waitrose store or have it delivered to the home so there’s less of a need for space.”

Brian Dowling, partner at Boyes Turner, said: “It’s hard to know who’s going to anchor any new shopping centres because you don’t have department stores anymore.

“John Lewis is the only successful surviving one, cinemas are struggling so what big single occupiers are actually going to support a town centre shopping centre? It’s the resi coming in.”

Mr Horton-Baker said the renewal of Reading’s BID will be key in the next few months. The vote among businesses over whether to approve another five years of the BID is the first since the turmoil of Covid and lockdown.

It funds cleaning, promotion, leisure activities, events and security as well as Christmas lights.

Mr Horton-Baker said: “It’s adding a million pounds-plus to extra services beyond the local authority. The lights will literally go out if we don’t get the BID. There will be no Christmas to talk of in Reading because the council won’t be able to pick that up.”

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