“Persistent” buildings and persistent people – How heritage buildings can revive our High Streets

Those concerned for the future of the nation’s historic high street buildings were treated to a lively and informative online presentation from Heritage Trust Network and Locality on July 1st.

Can historic buildings save England’s High Streets?

In a lively discussion, expert panelists discussed the potential new uses of historic high street premises and the role of culture in town centres’ revival.

Speakers were David Tittle – CEO of Heritage Trust Network, Owain Lloyd-James – Head of Places Strategy, Historic England, Carol Pyrah – Executive Director, Historic Coventry Trust, Joe Holyoak – Trustee, Moseley Road Baths, Diane Dever – Chair, Urban Rooms Network and Claire Appleby – Architecture Advisor, Theatres Trust.

The mainly heritage-based audience were treated to much impressive factual information from regeneration projects around the UK, together with practical steps and advice when furthering their own high street heritage projects.

The discussion put the High Street in context, starting as a community focus, then often rebuilt to become more retail-focused, and now as retail is on the decline, accelerated by Covid, towns need to find new creative offers to encourage people back to their High Streets.

Owain Lloyd-James of Heritage England reminded us that High Streets are areas of greater footfall, which is why so many theatres, cinemas and other cultural buildings are on them or very nearby. He also noted that retailers were waking up to the idea that they had to offer “something extra” for people to visit High Street stores. This new form, dubbed “experiential retail”, has prompted awareness amongst retailers that historic and heritage buildings can add something special to a shopping trip. This has fueled an increasing amount of interest in repurposing older buildings to create stores with character and interest, as opposed to the bland Lego boxes that infect most of our Hugh Streets today.

Carol Pyrah of Historic Coventry Trust told us about the successes achieved by her group including participating in City of Culture this year, and how they have positively shifted visitors expectations of the appeal of the city through their many placemaking and arts-based projects.

Joe Holyoak, a Trustee of Moseley Road Baths, told us of this historic building’s impressive plan for renovation and renaissance as an arts centre and studios. He also, helpfully, reminded us that the word “monument” stems from the word for memory. And finally, he reached back through time to remind us that buildings which survive down the ages have often been called “persistent” buildings, which seemed a very apt title; and he celebrated not only the persistent buildings but also the persistent people who help to bring them back into life.

Diane Dever discussed the projects arising from the Urban Rooms project in Folkestone. Sadly, for me, her presentation slides were so dense that they became unreadable and undermined the detail of what she was trying to tell us. It was, however, heartening to see Folkestone’s creative quarter emerging, and to hear that the income from shop and flat rentals in the area were helping to fund creative events.

For me, the best was saved till last, as Claire Appleby of the Theatres Trust brought out the convincers – the financial figures. As well, Claire underlined the architectural importance of theatres, their memory-link to the local communities around them, and the wide social benefits of theatres and the activities that can be housed within them. Also highlighted was the flexibility with which theatre companies had lead the way in Covid help, being outreach workers, community hubs, food banks, vaccination centres, and so much more- theatres really showed their value to their communities.

An Arts Council of England survey found that theatres were highly valued, with respondents stating that they were willing to pay £13 a year per person to retain their local theatre.

Theatres’ effects on the local economy were great, with people coming into the area to see a show and usually spending more while they were in the locality. In the last, non-Covid year of research, UK Theatre found there were 34 million visits to theatres across the UK bringing a value of over £1.38 billion, that figure without the extra benefits of restaurants, bars, hotels, etc.

As mentioned on this blog, another survey found that theatre’s wellbeing impacts on audiences contributed to a saving of over £102million to the NHS annually, with 60% of theatregoers more likely to report good health than non-theatregoers.

Finally, Claire quoted a number of recent or nearly-completed projects, with Chester’s Storyhouse (a redevelopment of their old Odeon cinema) bringing a million visitors in their last year. Bradford’s newly refurbished ex-Odeon cinema is projected to bring over a quarter of a million visitors in the first year, with a projected boost to the local economy of £10million. The newly-refurbished Globe Theatre in Stockton-on-Tees projects 170,000 visitors in their first year, bringing an £18million boost to the local economy. (And just another example from my own experience- Walthamstow’s refurbishment of their Granada cinema into a mixed-use theatre space is projected to bring over £100million into the local economy over its first ten years of operation.)

A lively Q&A followed, and the event was brought to a close by David Tittle. Thanks to everyone involved for a highly informative, positive and optimistic view of heritage buildings’ futures on our High Streets.

Watch a recording of the event, which you can find here


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