How the public and private sector can come together to regenerate town centres and make them places that provide the facilities and services was the subject of a workshop and dinner jointly held recently by Shoosmiths and Lambert Smith Hampton.
Over 30 senior local authority executives and private sector developers, place designers and operators from the region enjoyed a thought provoking and interesting evening, at our offices in Manchester. They discussed what steps needed to be taken to support the reinvention of town centres and were aided by a panel of industry experts that consisted of Professor Cathy Parker of MMU who chairs the government’s High Streets Task Force; Eamonn Boylan, the chief executive of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority and Phil Mayall of MUSE Development.
The panel also included Dr Steven Norris, LSH’s national head of planning, development and Regeneration who shared a detailed presentation on research recently undertaken by LSH on behalf of Revo (formerly British Council of Shopping Centres) with over 200 experts and advisers across the public and private sectors to highlight challenges facing town centres and potential actions to help with their revitalisation.
Throughout the discussion there was a recognition that the key to any successful regeneration and reinvention of town centres was effective collaboration between local authorities and the private sector. Various examples of successful partnerships which had prepared and delivered transformational projects were provided.
The more recent recognition at a national level of the crisis facing many town centres and initiatives such as the Future High Streets Fund and the High Streets Task Force, and the resources committed by the government to support these initiatives were welcomed.
However, the message was that fundamentally, town centres needed to diversify their offer and there was a need to think more creatively about what ingredients make a successful, diverse and vibrant town centre for the 21st century. While there was always going to be a place for a core retail offer, there also needed to be a mix of leisure, residential and commercial workspace in order to attract a broader range of users and create a more sustainable town centre community.
There was also a strong view from those in attendance that, in parallel to these formal arrangements, there was a fundamental need to involve town centre stakeholders and the community in the formulation of any strategies and plans, so that there was a sense of ownership and to create a better prospect of local people being advocates for their town centre.
Getting the right masterplan for a town centre that reflected the unique characteristics and culture of a place was also crucial, it was agreed. The masterplan had to help shape a place that met the needs of local people so knowing the views of your community was more important than ever. It had to provide not just the physical infrastructure but also the right kind of space that allows people to congregate and activities which promote health and wellbeing in terms of green space and cultural/leisure facilities and events.
The private sector representatives in the room also felt that, notwithstanding any partnership approach, there was a need for strong leadership to be evident from the local authority – and that one of the most powerful attractions to an area for investors was evidence of investment in infrastructure to facilitate development and continuity in terms of the council’s commitment to partnership regardless of political change.
The planning policies which relate to town centres were also discussed. The general view was that the existing “town centres first” policies in the planning system needed to be consolidated and there needed to be enough flexibility for planning decisions relating to town centres to be made on the basis of responding to the market where appropriate and that greater use of CPO powers should be encouraged.
Of course, no discussion on town centres would be complete without highlighting the need for reform of the business rates system. This was seen as a priority by both public and private sector attendees and the creation of a more equitable system which took provided “a level playing field” with online retail was viewed as essential. However, there was recognition that councils face a major funding gap by 2025 and any changes to the system should not exacerbate this issue.