Whitechapel Market, Whitechapel, London.  General view of market.
Whitechapel Market, Whitechapel, London. General view of market. © Historic England
Whitechapel Market, Whitechapel, London. General view of market. © Historic England

Historic Town Centres and High Streets

The challenges facing retail are impacting our historic town centres and high streets. This page advises how local planning authorities, owners, retailers, developers, local communities and other interested parties can respond to protect both the vitality and historic character of these important social and economic hubs.


The successful and sustained stewardship of historic retail districts is closely linked with the on-going health of the retail sector.

In recent years, out of town retail sites, changing shopping habits and the growth of online retailing have all challenged town centres. As the number of people visiting and the range of shops to be found in town centres has changed, there has been a related impact on the local historic character of town centre buildings, their range of uses and street patterns. These may well be permanent changes.

The decline in use of a number of particular types of buildings (for example pubs, post offices and banks) has added to the problem. Reduced footfall and increased vacancy rates in some areas has led to under-investment and a deterioration in the quality of the environment. Some high streets and town centres have entered a spiral of decline.

At the same time, there have been changes to the planning system that have made it easier to transform retail and office buildings into residential properties. These changes can also have a major impact on the character of historic places. 

The future

As a result, town centres and high streets are at a critical point. They need to reinforce and redefine their role and function at the centre of community activities in response to these economic and social shifts.

These challenges have a particular resonance for historic town centres and high streets. The sustained and successful stewardship of their buildings, streets and spaces is intertwined with the health of the retail economy.

What can we do?

Key points to consider in planning for and managing historic town centres and high streets:

Understand the context 

  • A critical first step is to assess and understand the heritage significance of your town centre and high street
  • It is also important to understand wider economic conditions: such an understanding can inform a more positive response to changes
  • Recognise that places need to be adaptable, to be able to adjust to changing retail and social trends and offer shoppers and visitors the experience they want
  • Look at addressing endemic issues and structural challenges, including through property investment
  • Recognise the complementary role of niche and mainstream shopping
  • Local market research is essential to identifying actions that will be relevant and appealing to the existing and future customer base


  • Formal and informal partnership arrangements and town centre management initiatives can be invaluable in creating a clear image for town centres. These can be based on particular developments, which serve as a catalyst for change, or on a programme of events
  • A joined-up approach to transport (including the provision of the necessary services for town centre uses, such as loading bays) underpins a welcoming and attractive arrival experience for visitors

 Design and local distinctiveness

  • Look at ways of ensuring that public realm is designed to be in keeping with the surrounding built environment
  • Think about reviewing and managing  shop fronts as a collection rather than individually
  • Formal and informal partnership arrangements are also important in creating and implementing a clear design for the town centre which  reinforces local character and distinctiveness 

Promote activity and vitality

  • Look at ways of building a strong leisure offer alongside retail opportunities (historic centres will often have the benefit of an attractive environment and tourist attractions, alongside any potential for commercial leisure)
  • Promoting activity through new uses and attractive public spaces animates town centres and reinforces vibrancy. Complementary uses such as residential can also be important in supporting the vitality of town centres

Improve the public realm

City and town centres can suffer from a poor public realm, which mars the shopping experience and discourages visitors from lingering.

To help counter this problem, Historic England has produced advice on improving your street.