How £44m fund can transform Yorkshire’s historic high streets - Trevor Mitchell

THE retail landscape is clearly being challenged with the changing habits of shoppers, but the announcement of a new £44m fund from Historic England to improve the country’s historic high streets gives cause for optimism for areas of Yorkshire.

The future of high streets across Yorkshire remain in the spotlight.

While the gloom-laden headlines of collapsed retail chains have dominated, there are shafts of light as industry experts reimagine high streets, in particular local places, as destinations where independent, community-focused and innovative retail thrives alongside new uses to challenge the online sector and win back footfall.

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Historic England has long championed historic town centres. In conservation areas and, more recently, through our Heritage Action Zones we have given grants to help maintain and revive shopping areas, which provide jobs and vital services. Currently, we are working in partnership with Kirklees and Hull Councils to revitalise Dewsbury’s historic town centre and Hull’s Old Town, with funding to bring new life to old buildings.

Hull's Old Town has been the focus of regeneration.

We have seen the benefits of our grants, not just in repairing our precious heritage, but also in helping to regenerate areas. This is why we are now urging local authorities and businesses in Yorkshire to come to us with their ideas for how our new funding can help to transform their historic high streets. The closing date for our new scheme is July 12.

According to a report by PwC, Yorkshire and Humber’s high streets saw 191 shop openings in 2018 and 417 close their doors, a net loss of 226 retail outlets across the region. This trend seems unlikely to change, so now is the time to support new uses which will bring people into town.

While we don’t know all the reasons behind these closures, what we do know is that when owners, retailers and local authorities work together, with financial support and advice from Historic England, to repair and repurpose tired local landmark buildings, we see increased footfall and jobs secured.

Hull's Old Town is enjoying a transformation.

One of the best examples of this is Derby’s Cathedral Quarter where an area of historic buildings had lost their character through neglect, poor quality alterations and modern fascias whilst a new indoor mall had changed the retail focus.

This left Derby with the highest vacancy rate on the high street in England. Knowing that something had to be done, the City Council and Historic England offered shop owners advice and funding in return for them investing in repairs and refurbishment. Since 2008, 97 grants have been approved and evidence suggests that 250 jobs have been created or protected, sales and retail footfall has increased, and confidence in the retail market has been renewed. Derby’s Cathedral Quarter won Best British High Street in 2016.

It would be fantastic to see this success replicated in Yorkshire, and we know there is an appetite among businesses and residents. We have recently agreed a scheme in Mytholmroyd with Calderdale Council, to help to boost its main street after the disruption of flood damage and recent flood prevention works. We have already worked with Network Rail and the Railway Heritage Trust to restore the station building for new community uses.

Nationally, we know that businesses have an appetite for heritage. Our research found that seven out of 10 commercial occupiers believe that historic buildings give a positive image to customers and clients.

We also know that the number of businesses operating in listed buildings across England rose by 18 per cent between 2012 and 2018. For retail brands, the increase was 154 per cent.

Those concerned with retail, from consultants and architects to former CEOs of large chains have been vocal on how bricks and mortar retail can claw back shoppers from online convenience – and that is to offer people what they cannot get from the internet.

This includes social interaction, shared experiences, connected learning but also an opportunity to showcase a city or town’s individual identity through its local produce and unique culture. Historic buildings, old streets and characterful open spaces can and should play a key part in this process.

There is so much potential in Yorkshire to revive historic high streets. Research has shown that for every £1 invested in heritage in England, £1.60 is brought into the wider area. With this new funding and the collective will of all those concerned with the state of historic high streets, there’s hope for a brighter retail future thanks to our past.

Trevor Mitchell is Historic England’s regional director for the North East and Yorkshire.