What will our towns and cities look like when this is all over?

Photo shows: Debenhams Gloucester reimagined
Debenhams QDA

Evans Jones’ Surveyors and Planning teamed up with Quattro Design Architects to host a virtual webinar where attendees debated what can be done to save our towns and cities, repurpose and revitalise them for whatever the future might look like.

With major tenants such as Debenhams failing, John Lewis saying it won’t reopen all its stores after lockdown is lifted and a number of former high street retail stalwarts going under, there’s going to be a lot more space going spare that there has ever been before.

But nothing is going to change any time soon, with council planning departments having to follow the same lockdown rules as everyone else. Alongside that, according to David Jones of Evans Jones, it’s difficult driving projects forward with public consultation limited to online comments – and essential work such as traffic and air quality surveys not possible – because there’s no point undertaking these when there’s little traffic on the road to produce a believable result – unless the government bans cars permanently.

Some local highways authorities are getting around this by using historic data or modelling.

“A complete rethink of how town centres function is needed,” said David, adding: “The planning system should be a catalyst to stimulate economic recovery.”

Webinar participant Hannah Smart, from Oxford-based Edge Urban Design, commented: “Undoubtedly there will be changes to our built environment and our town centres. We have the opportunity to make real shifts in improving places for people and impacting out high streets and town centres,” but she asked: “How do you think the balance of mixed uses will change in town centres and high streets and how can we ensure that we use the planning system to lock down the need for change?”

One of the issues that Jonathan White, from Quattro Design Architects, has been looking at how workplaces function to tackle the issues around social distancing, when we do all go back to work. With future workspaces probably needing additional floor space to allow for such social distancing, this is very likely to affect the price per square metre.

Jonathan has also been looking at alternative uses for first and second floor space above large retail units and showed some modelling Quattro has done of the probably soon-to-be-empty Debenhams store in King’s Square, Gloucester.

Both David Evans and Jonathan White say that bringing people back into our town and city centres is key to restoring vibrancy to spaces which have suffered over the last few decades. While property owners have resisted investing in the upper floors of their retail premises due to the high cost of redevelopment, there remains a huge opportunity to turn these into homes for the older generation, or students, or both.

Christian Montez, from Hereford-based Montez Architects, warned: “A huge amount of city centres are based around historic, sometimes medieval building cores. It is imperative that decisions made are not “rash” and compatible materials are used with a full understanding of historic significance. Gloucester has some good (bad) examples in the city from the mid-century.”

But perhaps the investment appetite will now be there as traditional housebuilding has seen a drop of 1/3 in the number of houses being built during lockdown.