This has a severe impact on the traditional high street. Increasingly, local councils are realising they must respond to the challenge if the decline of town centres is to be reversed. Usually that means a strong, active partnership between council and commerce.
This is starting to happen through town centre management (TCM), a relatively new concept that is growing rapidly. The first manager was appointed in 1986. In 1989 there were seven.
Today, 50 towns and cities have TCM schemes, including Liverpool, Eastbourne, Bradford, Birmingham, Hemel Hempstead, Oxford, Belfast and Bristol. Now Bath and Wood Green, north London, have started. Dozens more schemes are being planned or considered.
TCM's main corporate sponsors are Boots the Chemists and Marks & Spencer: more than 90 per cent of the latter's outlets are in town centres.
Both also support the relatively young Association of Town Centre Management, along with Norwich Union, Kent County Council and the boroughs of Maidstone, Reading and Redbridge. It was formed in 1991 and now has 240 members,including local authorities, estate agents, developers and surveyors.
Alan Glover, one of the association's directors, is an architect and urban designer with Kent planning department. His county has three TC managers in place, with other towns forming action plans.
In a paper on TCM, Mr Glover attributes the move of businesses away from town centres to sharper competition among fewer multiples, new methods of distribution, an increase in the number of car owners, easy access and free parking at the new centres, and a shift of employment away from the centre of town.
He points out some of the symptoms of town decline: major stores pulling out, neglected property fabric following reduced resources - litter, graffiti, boarded-up shop fronts, and 'To Let' signs. All contribute to an image of depression. Expensive, difficult-to-find parking and poor public transport add to the drawbacks.
More distant developments - Metro Centre in Tyne and Wear, Cribbs Causeway near Bristol, Meadowhall near Sheffield, Lakeside in Essex, and Merry Hill in the West Midlands - have attractions that contrast with this image, giving them impact on some towns and cities 50 or more miles away.
Against this competition, revitalisation can be a long haul. But gradual improvements are being made as TC managers work with zest, tact and an attentive ear.
Part of their remit is to heed the aspirations of all town-centre users: business, volunteers, disabled people, residents, visitors, emergency services. Their aim is to achieve parity with out- of-town schemes by making their own centre more welcoming, attractive and prosperous.
'TCM has arrived and is working - managers are professional, keen to learn the techniques,' says Chris Hollins, TC support manager for Boots. Of his company's 1,200 outlets, 1,052 are in high streets.
Boots is currently sponsoring more than 30 TCM schemes and may become involved with 200 eventually. Like Marks and Spencer, it has developed a TCM policy and produced a managers' guide.
Mr Hollins spent two years as TC manager at Falkirk, seconded by Boots to the Scottish Development Agency. Now he uses his experience to advise other towns. Shaun Boney, Boots' head of TC planning and Mr Hollins' supervisor, says: 'We are concerned there should be investment in towns. Balanced planning is needed to ensure that the opening of one centre doesn't lead to the demise of others.'
TC managers are pioneers in a new career. Most have a retail background, but engineering, design and marketing are routes. The association has commissioned an audit on managers' skills and a course leading to a qualification will then be developed. It has also commissioned research into the effectiveness of TCM.
Michael Stansbury, borough commercial liaison officer, is the longest- serving TC manager. He started with Ilford seven years ago when the shopping centre was declining. Later, his work for the London borough of Redbridge, where he is a chief officer, broadened to include South Woodford and Barkingside.
He sees his job in terms of three main goals: making town centres work; looking ahead in terms of development (and drawing in commerce and industry); and promoting the area to residents and outsiders. In 1991 he was involved with Norwich Union and Prudential's successful project to open 300,000 square feet of shopping space.
As chairman of the TCM association, Mr Stansbury - previously a CBI economist - welcomes a government planning policy guidance document which acknowledges the importance of town centres and their need of proper management.
Eryll Woollett, of Maidstone's Town Centre Management Initiative, says it does not have a strong identity. 'We want to generate civic pride and get people to see Maidstone as the region's capital in the heart of Kent.'
She is not perceived as being an anonymous council member. Since her arrival 18 months ago, she has followed the wishes of some townspeople who wanted flowers in the town centre by inviting retailers to sponsor hanging baskets.
Other projects include upgrading normal street works and pavements, investigating the use of closed circuit television as an anti-terrorism precaution, improving lighting, and ensuring the streets are clean and that graffiti is removed.
But it is not all work and no play. She wants to encourage more night life by making Maidstone 'a 24-hour venue with pubs and night clubs, restaurants offering in-house entertainment, and cafes spilling on to the pavement in the continental manner'.
To keep interest in the town centre alive in the minds of residents, she writes a regular column in a local newspaper.
Bath, a world heritage site and major tourist attraction, has a different brief. It is keen to guard its reputation as well as meeting the retail challenge of Cribbs Causeway and other places.
'People visiting our city centre must get a very good package, even to details such as helpful carpark attendants,' says John Mulholland, president of the chamber of commerce which is co- funding TCM with Bath City Council.
'It's partly customer care: easy street directions, a pleasant station, enough loos, restaurants where foreign languages are spoken. Bath is a cosmopolitan city, but can they take orders in French, or in Japanese?'
Mr Mulholland promises 'exciting future plans'. Meanwhile, he wants people to think first of Bath, whether they are shoppers, tourists or in business. In the past it's been relatively easy, he says, but more cars mean more people are willing and able to travel further away.
According to Clive Abbott, chief executive of Bath council, the centre is 'very good indeed. But we are not complacent. The recession has hit Bath like everywhere else.'
M&S's guide sums up TCM policy - that the town is for people. All the planning in the world can be a waste of time if that simple fact is forgotten.
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