Understanding the Dynamics of Town Centre Change

14
February 2013

4
comments
Post Comment
Chris Wade, The Chief Executive of Action for Market Towns, addresses the issues concerning town centre change.

Earlier this month I spoke to a gathering of North Wales regeneration practitioners about the dynamics of town centre change.  A big part of my message was that too often over recent years, policy-makers and practitioners have focused on the individual symptoms of change in our High Street and looked to ‘turn back the clock’.  That has been the case too often with publicity and practice stemming from the Portas Review of the High Street across England and is something that the Scottish Government is keen to avoid as it undertakes its current town centre review.

 

In Wales, the draft Regeneration Strategy published in the autumn aspired to take a holistic approach and, alongside other national policies, placed town centres and coastal resorts at the heart of a forward-looking approach.  As we prepare to take-forward the Welsh Government’s final recommendations as part of a wider national movement, a joined-up understanding of the dynamics of town centre change will be vital to transforming policy and practice over a transitional year ahead. 

 

Holyhead was a great place to talk about the dynamics that determine how town centres evolve and the influences that communities, councils and commercial interests can have upon them.  As an international port, part of a wider tourism destination and service centre for the surrounding Anglesey population, Holyhead’s evolution serves a range of needs and will be swayed by a range of influences.  Holyhead has been the focus for prolonged regeneration investment and until recently it showed the symptoms of decline with one of the highest High Street vacancy rates in the UK.  The forces at play in shaping Holyhead’s future are very apparent with people and partnerships key to the recent success of its award-winning Empty Shops Initiative; strategic and land-use planning able to shape the impact of major investments including a proposed marina development; knowledge of property ownership and values crucial to balanced growth and an understanding of its place in the wider North Wales economy crucial for coordinating growth with neighbouring communities.

 

At AMT we use the concept of ‘town trajectories’ to focus discussion on how the future of a town like Holyhead is predetermined or how intervention and understanding of the dynamics of people, planning, property and place can positively drive socio-economic regeneration.  We base this on evidence gathered through understanding the population characteristics of different types of towns and tracking change through our town centre economic benchmarking process which measures key performance indicators.  Through this approach we have been able to work with over 20 North Wales and Cheshire communities to help monitor and manage town centre functions, issues and trends over a number of years.  We are currently extending this benchmarking approach to monitor the commercial, community and cultural value of towns and their wider socio-economic role.

 

Through our AMT Towns Alive experience working with hundreds of small towns across the UK, we understand the influence that local people and partnerships can have in leading change.  The benefits and understanding from a decade of our work with local councils to guide community-led planning and solutions are well documented and previous work in Yorkshire has showed that ‘participatory democracy’ through community-based partnerships can have a major influence on shaping future scenarios for small towns. 

 

We also champion the case for informed decision-making and consistent national controls for putting town centres first in planning policy; not just for retail but for other complementary town centre uses such as office space, leisure uses and public services such as health and education.  Planning policy for change of use is equally important and caution needs to be taken with any relaxation of rules to alleviate the symptoms of town centre change rather than contributing to the long-term economic and social value to communities.

 

Combining locally-led delivery with evidence and understanding gained through town typologies and benchmarking, enables individual towns to chart their future trajectory and determine key influences.  This can enable a fresh approach to spatial planning, where understanding is built-up from the local level and communities can make an evidenced-based case for influencing planning and investment relative to their neighbours.

 

We recognise that key to developing balanced economies within town centres and attracting long-term investment, is an improved understanding of the dynamics of property ownership and values in a changing market.  For the time being, Holyhead has been able to change high vacancy rates in to an opportunity where new business start-ups benefit from reduced rents and landlords get rate relief whilst protecting the value of their assets.  Further along the North Wales coast in Caernarfon, the development trust there acquired and refurbished derelict shops as an alternative approach to supporting business start-up and maintaining wider town centre vitality as a social business.

 

More knowledge needs to be pooled across Wales about how to safeguard the overall value of town centre property portfolios, whilst enabling opportunities for diversification and increased footfall.  This could involve elements of cross-subsidy to create attractions, creative land assembly that accounts for wider impacts and the extension of mechanisms such as Business Improvement Districts and development trusts to hold and manage property in town centres.  We look forward playing our part in discussion with property professionals, landlords and their representatives.

 

As a member of the Welsh town centre practitioners’ network set-up last year by the Centre for Regeneration Excellence in Wales (CREW), we are enthusiastic about the opportunity to share our understanding and learn from our peers.  This network brings together public and private expertise and commitment to maintaining the viability and vitality of town centres across Wales.  Too often policy and practice is reactive, uncoordinated and only treats the short-term symptoms.  Against the background of changing economic conditions, a transition in European funding levels and a wealth of experience of what works in regenerating Welsh towns, this network provides an opportunity to develop joined-up thinking about the underlying dynamics of town centre change and to work with Government to pilot creative long-term solutions.  Our hope is that the scale of Government in Wales, the close connections between communities and the familiarity that exists between practitioners, will make it a hotbed of innovation and coordinated delivery in regenerating town centres.  We are aware though that familiarity is not always a positive force!










 

This article has 4 comments

Leave a Reply

Dave Adamson18 February 2013

1

Thanks to Chris for kicking off an important discussion in Wales. The concept of town trajectories is extremely useful for understanding the future of our towns. Too many have a downward trajectory and its important to apply the kind of intelligence led planning that Chris identifies in order to turn that trajectory towards more positive outcomes. Developing an extended menu of town centre activities is a critical response to the crisis facing many Welsh towns. A portfolio of activities can include, meanwhile uses, BIDS, residential accommodation, events and a reduced retail presence. Every town is different and locally led solutions must develop an appropriate prescription for positive change. Local business and social communities must be the leaders in developing solutions

Chris Wade18 February 2013

2

Comments very welcome; especially on what you would define as the underlying dynamics of town centre change and how collectively we can understand and work with them.

Jennifer Angus19 June 2013

3

Hi Chris,

I'm interested in one of the comments you make here about the Portas Review. You say that it has focused on "the individual symptoms of change in our High Street and looked to ‘turn back the clock.’ " So I take this to mean, its suggested more of the same rather than anything innovative.

However, part of the 'town trajectories' approach seems to centre on understanding the individual characteristics of each town and therefore, the individual symptoms of its situation/problems and then coming up with a bespoke response - is this fundamentally different to what the Portas review suggests and if so, in what ways?

Jennifer Angus19 June 2013

4

Hi Chris,

I'm interested in one of the comments you make here about the Portas Review. You say that it has focused on "the individual symptoms of change in our High Street and looked to ‘turn back the clock.’ " So I take this to mean, its suggested more of the same rather than anything innovative.

However, part of the 'town trajectories' approach seems to centre on understanding the individual characteristics of each town and therefore, the individual symptoms of its situation/problems and then coming up with a bespoke response - is this fundamentally different to what the Portas review suggests and if so, in what ways?


 

Leave a Reply