In an interview for Horticulture Week, Ruth Lake, the LI’s High Streets Task Force project delivery manager, describes how our members’ focus on green space helps transform town centres and public realm in a way that is ‘not all about retail’

Typical British High Street. The plane of focus is tilted so focus only happen on some upper parts of the buildings.

This article, by Dan Symonds, originally appeared in Horticulture Week on 17 November 2020.


Last year marked a pivotal moment in the UK’s retail sector as it experienced negative growth for the first time in 24 years.

According to advisory firm KPMG, which has been monitoring the UK’s retail performance since 1995, total sales slipped by 0.1% in 2019, primarily driven by poor high street performance towards the back end of the year.

High street retail has continued to struggle with the increasing dominance of online marketplaces such as Amazon, as well as the growing prevalence of next-day deliveries and free returns. According to the Office for National Statistics, high street retail employment fell in more than three-quarters of local authorities between 2015 and 2018.

In response, retailers across the country have been restructuring their businesses to provide an improved online offering while simultaneously cutting back on their high street presence. This has led to 12% of stores throughout the UK standing empty, according to retail data specialist the Local Data Company.

For predominantly retail-focused high streets, this has resulted in decreased footfall and masses of underutilised space, all of which impacts the finances of owners and local authorities.

Now, with the true financial fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic still yet to be seen, and with more than 70% of pubs and restaurants suggesting they may be forced to close next year as a result, many fear the worst for the traditional British high street.

Time to adapt

While there may be little that can be done to reverse the impact of online shopping on the bricks-and-mortar retail sector, the Government-backed High Streets Task Force (HSTF) has been charged with assisting English councils to reimagine the high street, helping them to evolve in line with consumer trends and to once again become the thriving, bustling hub of the local community.

In 2019, the Government awarded £8.6m to a consortium led by the Institute of Place Management (IPM), a professional body created in partnership between Manchester Metropolitan University and the Association of Town Centre Management, to establish the task force. The consortium comprised 12 organisations including the Landscape Institute.

Guided initially by the findings of the 2018 High Street Report (later High Street UK 2020), the group would help reinvent town centres while supporting local authorities applying to the Government’s £675m Future High Streets Fund.

‘We’ve known that our high streets have been in decline, generally, for a significant period of time, and that there was a need for change,’ says Ruth Lake, the Landscape Institute’s project delivery manager for the HSTF.

‘IPM’s approach was to put a bit of science behind it – to look at the research and evidence behind how high streets are performing, at what was working and what wasn’t, and to try and categorise these high streets. IPM quickly realised that getting a pool of expertise across all the different aspects that might impact a high street was actually the best way forward.’

One of the positive outcomes from the COVID-19 pandemic has been the importance placed on green public spaces, particularly in city or urban environments where they are often at a premium. There is also a growing list of evidence linking well-managed green spaces to improvements in people’s health and well-being.

‘From the Landscape Institute’s point of view, it was really important for us to be involved in this project because a lot of work that our members do is around green space and public realm activity,’ says Lake. ‘The recognition that it’s not all about retail and that there’s this wider remit means our members are very much in a position where they can help.’

Initial trials

In February 2020, the HSTF held a meeting with council leaders from 14 pilot locations to discuss their town centre proposals and to explore the products and services on offer from the initiative. This would be followed by a visit from a task force expert to explore key barriers to transforming the relevant high street and to recommend a strategic response.

The 14 pilot councils had all previously applied for support from the Future High Streets Fund but were rejected in the first round. The HSTF would discuss each bid with the appropriate council to see how it could be improved.

In March this year, HSTF experts began visiting councils to discuss high streets in:

  • Birmingham
  • Cheshire West and Chester
  • Coventry
  • Croydon
  • Hartlepool
  • Hyndburn
  • Knowsley
  • Manchester
  • Preston
  • Rushmoor
  • Salford
  • Sandwell
  • South Lakeland
  • Staffordshire Moorlands

Experts were able to hold sessions for seven of the 14 designated high streets before the first national lockdown resulted in a temporary change in the HSTF’s remit. The remaining seven visits were postponed.

Throughout the pandemic, the HSTF adapted its role to assist councils with ensuring that their high streets were COVID-safe and that shops, restaurants and pubs had the appropriate social distancing and cleaning measures in place to welcome back customers following a lockdown.

Advice revolved around the COVID-19 Recovery Framework, which was largely adopted by local authorities during the first lockdown. Additional documentation supplied by the HSTF includes a 10-point checklist to help plan for the reopening of high streets at the peak Christmas shopping period, and the COVID-19 Recovery: Best Practice Guide providing insight into a range of initiatives taking place around the country.

HSTF experts

While assisting councils with their COVID preparations, the HSTF issued a call for experts to join the programme. ‘It was an open application process,’ Lake explains. ‘Our entire membership was invited to apply, but they did have to meet certain criteria, such as a certain number of years’ experience as a chartered or fellow member of the Landscape Institute, or being a member of an LI Registered Practice. Mentors and Facilitators were asked to meet slightly different criteria.’

To ensure a suitable spread of key skills, the Institute selected applicants with specialisms in predetermined areas, including:

  • Design (public realm)
  • Masterplanning (including visioning)
  • Visualisation and photography
  • Landscape assessment
  • Sustainability, climate change and resilience
  • Community engagement (including co-design)
  • Inclusive design
  • Landscape construction (and implementation)
  • Landscape engineering
  • Management of landscapes or parks management or people/visitor management
  • Procurement and tendering
  • Water management (including water-sensitive urban design and sustainable drainage systems)

Following a rigorous selection process, the HSTF register was formalised in October 2020 with the appointment of 150 experts, mentors or facilitators, 40 of whom were Landscape Institute members. The other 110 professionals were selected by IPM, the Design Council and the Royal Town Planning Institute.

The Landscape Institute’s four-person panel, which included president Jane Findlay, sat over three days to review all of the applications from its members. ‘It was all virtual and we went through each application in detail,’ says Lake.

‘Although this is an England-only initiative, we were able to include experts based in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales who are happy to work in England. We’ve got a range of people from different parts of the country, some people working for small firms, some people working for the much larger firms.

‘We’ve got people with very traditional backgrounds and we’ve got people with less traditional backgrounds. Things can always be more diverse, but actually, in terms of delivering a broad set of expertise, I think we have achieved that, which is great to see.’

Gillespies associate landscape architects Sheena Bell and Ryan Coghlan, both specialists in town centre and public realm regeneration, were among those appointed as task force experts. Other appointments include freelance urban design consultant Jim Fox and freelance landscape design consultant Katie Hammond. The full register of experts is set to be released in December.

Central team/board

The HSTF is primarily co-ordinated by a central team/board [see below]. Many of the initial high street projects were identified from the first round of applications to the Future High Streets Fund, including the 14 trial towns, but new councils have been encouraged to apply for help. Now that the register of experts, mentors and facilitators has been formalised, the central team can allocate suitable individuals to each project as required.

‘When a council is identified as requiring support from the HSTF, the central team will go through the allocation process of working out which skill sets are needed,’ says Lake.

‘They’ll then look at what’s being offered by the relevant individual on the expert register, whether they can service that location and whether they have been trained as an expert, mentor or a facilitator. It’s then up to that individual to accept or turn down that particular project to work on.’

Experts receive a day rate of £800 while mentors and facilitators earn £400 a day. The five key products and services on offer to councils are:

  • “Unlocking Your Place Potential” visit, undertaken by expert (lead) and facilitator (support)
  • Expert consultation, undertaken by expert (lead/co-ordination)
  • Mentoring programme, undertaken by mentor (guidance/advice/mediation)
  • “Developing a Shared Vision” workshop, undertaken by expert (lead) and facilitator (support)
  • “Place Making Programme”, undertaken by expert (lead) and facilitator (support)

For now, the HSTF is primarily concerned with helping high streets throughout the lockdown, although efforts are being made to continue the Unlocking Your Place Potential discussions with the remaining seven pilot high streets.

The Landscape Institute is also helping to coordinate the training of the 40 selected members on HSTF products and services. With the uncertainty of the pandemic, many of these products and services are likely to be delivered virtually in the first instance.

‘From February onwards, we should start seeing experts actually getting out there, albeit virtually to begin with, and to start rolling out these products and services across the country, which would be fantastic,’ says Lake.

‘In the meantime, our experts are very much getting up to speed in terms of the products and services, and also looking at how they might learn from one another.’

HSTF board

  • Mark Robinson, HSTF chair and co-founder of property developer Ellandi
  • Vidhya Alakeson, founding chief executive, Power to Change
  • Joe Barratt, co-founder, Teenage Market
  • Matt Colledge, Trafford Council leader and creator of Altrincham Forward
  • Margaret Dale, leader of community-led initiative to improve Holmfirth in West Yorkshire
  • Ibrahim Ibrahim, managing director, Portland Design
  • Emma Mackenzie, head of asset management, NewRiver Real Estate Investment Trust
  • Stuart Miller, customer director, Newcastle Building Society
  • Phil Prentice, chief officer, Scotland’s Towns Partnership
  • Diane Savory, GFirstLEP chair and former Superdry chief operating officer
  • Michele Wilby, chief executive officer, Colmore Business Improvement District
  • Simon Quin, executive director, HSTF
  • Cathy Parker, research lead, HSTF

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