As our Backing UK Retail campaign celebrates the industry’s role in supporting the economy, Ben Cooper looks at how retail developments have revitalised the country’s towns and cities.

If it wasn’t for Bluewater there might still be a Kent wasteland sitting by the side of the M25. And had Meadowhall not been built, a derelict Sheffield steelworks might be in an even worse state of disrepair by now.

These are just two major schemes that have breathed life into previously desolate corners of the UK. At a time when there is little cheer in the retail industry, it pays to look at the positives. Shopping centres and high streets are not just places for consumers to spend; they are the beating heart of a community’s economy.

With the decline of the British manufacturing industry, retail has become the country’s third largest employer. Millions of families now depend on the jobs that retail creates and when a new shopping centre arrives in an area of high unemployment, it is often just what the local economy is crying out for.

“Regeneration is about everyone winning,” explains Centros chief executive Richard Wise. “It’s about retaining expenditure in the town. If you’ve provided the right number of shops you can close off a leakage of shoppers out of the town and schemes are a springboard for further regeneration.”

You only have to look at the rapturous welcome received by those shopping centres that opened in 2008 – such as Liverpool One, which has transformed a formerly down at heel city centre – to see just how keen most locals are for this extra development. Aside from the shopping opportunities they afford, new centres, if handled correctly, represent a new era for a town or city, a new period of growth and a brighter future for the population. In fact, the British Council of Shopping Centres (BCSC) has identified nine key areas where retail-led regeneration bolsters a local economy [see box], based on extensive research into five case studies.

Retail development can affect all kinds of communities, from those in the smallest of estates to a huge conurbation. By the 1980s Sheffield was a city in decline. Once one of Europe’s great industrial cities, it was left utterly depressed by the demise of the steel industry, which employed a quarter of the city’s workers, as well as the catastrophic effects of the death of local coal mining.

So it is fitting that when the idea for Meadowhall – what was to become one of the UK’s prime shopping centres – was first conceived, it was planned for the site of the disused Hadfields steel works three miles from the city centre. When the 1.5 million sq ft (139,350 sq m) of retail space opened in 1990 it was the start of Sheffield’s long recovery.

Of course Meadowhall was only one development to have played a part in Sheffield’s revival, but it has created thousands of jobs since its opening and without it, the recovery would doubtless have been slower. In 1992 there were 31,098 unemployed people in the city – nearly 10 per cent of the population. By November 2008 this had fallen by two thirds to 10,532, only slightly above the national average.

As an example of the additional benefits a developer can bring to a community, in 2003 British Land opened The Source, a£5.5m employment training and development centre at Meadowhall, in partnership with Sheffield City Council. The centre is a dedicated facility for providing training and qualifications to local people looking for work. It has helped hundreds of unemployed and young people find employment, in retail at the centre and in other fields.

In June last year British Land submitted plans for further regeneration to the area, in the land to the south and east of Meadowhall. Again, the developer worked closely with Sheffield City Council and local stakeholders to draw up a masterplan for regeneration of the site. This includes 1,300 new homes, a neighbourhood centre and community hub, a hotel, a park and leisure facilities.

Employment isn’t the only benefit that retail can bring to an area. Shopping centres also raise a town’s profile and open the door for more investment and regeneration. This year marks the 10th anniversary of the opening of Bluewater in Kent. In the past 10 years, more than 250 million shoppers have walked through its doors – equivalent to everyone in the UK visiting more than four times.

Driving the local economy
Looking beyond the footfall figures, the arrival of this shopping centre giant on formerly barren land has meant a great deal to the local population. Built on the site of a former quarry, it has been one of the country’s top retail success stories since it opened in 1999. The business rates revenue generated for Dartford council over this period is£325m – money that goes straight into the local economy.

Dartford Borough Council leader Jeremy Kite is forthright about the benefits of having Bluewater on his doorstep. He says: “Bluewater has raised people’s expectations of the town. You can’t underestimate the effect it’s had on people.”

He adds: “The regenerative force has been enormous. In discussions with people from Prime Ministers down, when you mention Bluewater they say, ‘Oh yes’. It’s helped to re-establish the town enormously and it’s wonderful to know that there’s a partner down the road that’s contributing to the well-being of the town.”

Retail investment often provides the single biggest lift to a local economy – particularly in depressed areas. One example that proves this is Sainsbury’s development on the Castle Vale estate in Birmingham. This deprived estate to the north of the city centre, which houses 5,000 residents and was a run-down and crime-ridden area in the 1990s.

When Castle Vale’s Housing Action Trust (HAT) was granted a£350m regeneration grant from the government and the EU to find ways to revitalise the estate in 1996, it turned to retail as a priority. The HAT approached Sainsbury’s to tender for the development bid for a new shopping centre on the estate. Based on consultation with the HAT and the residents association, Sainsbury’s submitted its planning application to Birmingham City Council and was given the go-ahead to build the new scheme.

Nearly nine years on, the new shopping centre, which includes a 50,000 sq ft (4,645 sq m) Sainsbury’s anchor store, has proved integral to the regeneration of the estate. Castle Vale has experienced a fall in unemployment as a result of Sainsbury’s policy to employ local people, who made up a third of the workers at the scheme when it opened. By 2004 unemployment on the estate had fallen from 26 per cent in 1993 to 5.3 per cent, two new shopping centres had been built and 1,461 jobs created. Now, local residents comprise around 95 per cent of the store’s workforce.
Sainsbury’s business development director Vince Prior says: ‘‘In a challenging development market the supermarket’s role in supporting regeneration is stronger than ever. Many developers are going back to the drawing board and looking at supermarkets rather than other retail or residential uses to drive their schemes.”

He adds: “For us, it is business as usual and we are pressing ahead with opening and improving stores. This will create jobs and much needed investment at a time when both are in short supply.”

A report published jointly by Accessible Retail and King Sturge in 2006 speaks volumes for the positive role of retail for communities. As part of the report, The Contribution of the Retail Sector to the Economy, Employment and Regeneration, 4,090 people were surveyed about the impact of retail development. 90 per cent of respondents agreed that the sector “makes an important contribution to employment in the communities in which it operates”, and 74 per cent said that retailers have a generally positive effect on the communities they operate in.

The days of building a shopping centre purely as an investment without any forethought for the effects it will have on its environment are over. Retail property is big business and with such power comes responsibility.

Speaking in 1973, Lend Lease founder Dick Dusseldorp said: “The time is not far off when companies will have to justify their worth to society, with greater emphasis being placed on environmental and societal impact than straight economics.” That time has come. But after the achievements of the past 25 years, the worth of retailers and developers’ efforts should be plain for all to see.

The positive effects of retail-led regeneration

Accessibility to jobs and training for local people
Population growth through relocation
Better quality of life
Improved sense of local pride
Improved transport infrastructure
Better links within town
Better integration and cohesion
A cleaner and safer environment
Opportunity for supporting small to medium-sized companies and local businesses

Source: BCSC’s Retail-led Regeneration: Why it Matters to Our Communities, 2009.