Nigel Wilcock, Executive Director of the Institute of Economic Development, lifts the lid on the findings of new research on town centre regeneration
Walk down any UK high street, and it is abundantly clear that the pandemic has accelerated trends in towns and cities there were already having a detrimental impact before Covid hit. More empty retail units, decreasing football in town and city centres, increasing online sales and home working – we know the issues, but there is comparatively little out there in terms of how to regenerate, renew and revive these spaces.
It is true that for far too long local authorities have been held back – lacking the finances and resources to effectively regenerate their urban areas – but at the same time whilst “more money” is often the call to action, without insight from those who are tasked with reimagining and reinventing town and city centres how can local authorities possibly make informed decisions about related spending and expenditure?
Priorities for the future of town centres
New research from the Institute of Economic Development (IED) and Lichfields planning consultancy published at the start of this year identified some clear priorities for the future of town centres – and critically where financial support should be targeted by local authority leaders. Economic development and regeneration professionals reported that leisure and culture (48%), food and beverage (41%) and independent retail (35%) are “very important” to driving football in town centres – and independent retail (34%), leisure and culture (34%) and residential (28%) to repurpose vacant space.
When asked about underpinning strategies for supporting successful town centres of the future, a strong independent retail offer (52%), a year-round programme of cultural events (48%) and family-friendly activities (45%) were perceived to be “very important”. Also scoring highly as weighted averages were improvements to the built environment and public realm, and broader economic development interventions to raise the prosperity of the local area.
In contrast, respondents were less convinced about the effectiveness of current interventions in positioning town centres for success in the future. Whilst the majority rated business support to grow independent retail/food and drink offer as “very effective” (32%), only 13% said the same about business improvement districts and 17% about the various planning levers available to local areas. Enterprise arcades, with easy in/easy out terms, low rents/rates and business support, were seen more favourably.
Financial support to deliver positive change
Both the Future High Streets Fund and the Towns Fund recognise that financial support is needed to deliver positive change by ensuring a greater diversity of uses and repurposing vacant spaces. But the value of this research is it provides on-the-ground intelligence from economic development and regeneration professionals on key strategies for underpinning successful town centres of the future. It also suggests that practitioners do not consider some of the tools and levers available to them to be effective as policy-makers might have hoped.
Of course we would have expected the UK government to outline in its Levelling Up White Paper plans for further financial (and indeed legislative) devolution of powers to enable local authority leaders to deliver regeneration policies tailored to the needs of their specific areas. We called for replacing the current system of one-year financial settlements for local governments with a rolling three-year settlement, to provide greater reassurance and confidence in investment, and at an increased level.
A need for place-based budgets
However, beyond providing local authorities with increased finances, there is a need for place-based budgets and these should be implemented at a town level. This approach will ensure that each local authority works with its towns and that locations are not overlooked. None of the work suggested is at the expense of wider economic development initiatives: place-based activity at the town level is not instead of the interventions the local authority or combined authority may make but should be planned alongside this work to complement that activity.
Towns have, in many cases, existed as a thriving central locations for generations and have reinvented themselves over time. Most recently the drivers of planning and taxation policies, changes in the structure of retail and the pandemic have accelerated what are very dark days for town centres. It may be small comfort to retailers and hospitality businesses today but the coming decades are likely to reinforce the importance of our towns. Those local authorities that focus their spending on developing an attractive built environment and a sense of place are likely to be the areas which recover the fastest.