How can we breathe new life into Britain’s town centres?

Rochdale in 2011. Image: Getty.

Health, policing and transport dominate the discussion about the future of the newly devolved Greater Manchester. But how will the newly elected mayor influence the town, district and neighbourhood centres that have been left behind as the city centre grew and prospered? The Conversation

For now, we have the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework which outlines the long-term planning strategy for the region under a devolved authority. Unfortunately, the signs are not good. The fixation on building housing on greenbelt has already provoked a fierce backlash from local communities concerned about the loss of open space, natural environment and the lack of infrastructure to service these developments.

Soulless estates

The spatial framework reflects a tired approach to planning. It is mired in assumptions about society that once fuelled the postwar destruction of British communities by promoting the type of suburban sprawl, where residents have to get in their car just to buy a pint of milk, never mind get to work or take the kids to school. Is this what people really want? A life on soulless decentralised estates? Greater Manchester already has enough of these places, to the point the conurbation resembles much less a mini New York and much more a British version of Los Angeles.

According to The New Economy, despite the growth in walking, cycling and use of public transport, for those living and entering Greater Manchester for work, the car remains by far the most common means of transport. Outside central Manchester, the car is often the only choice you have. The spatial framework sits well then alongside what the influential urban studies journalist Jane Jacobs described as “city destroying ideas”. In contradiction, Jacobs advocated the qualities of living in dense neighbourhoods with vibrant street life and well used public realm.

Greater Manchester might learn from developments across the Atlantic and the so-called Great Inversion – where after decades of car-centric suburbanisation and urban sprawl people are returning to towns and cities. This reflects a preference for compact, denser and walkable communities. Even a defunct industrial city like Detroit is experiencing a regrowth through creative experiments in “place-making”, bringing life back into a place that suffered the full brunt of economic restructuring following the collapse of the post-war Keynesian consensus.


High street in decline

Many British towns, however, are going through an existential crisis. Out-of-town retail parks and internet shopping, along with the aftershocks of the 2008 crash, have created a perfect storm for town centre and high street decline. Importantly, centres are more than just places to go shopping. They are places to meet and socialise. They are the spatial expression of community identity and provide a sense of belonging. As shops disappear, the viability of other services, museums, libraries, public transport – along with pubs and places to eat – is brought into question. The decline of retailing, therefore, poses a fundamental question about the future of the places where we live, work and socialise.

Research we are leading at the Institute of Place Management at Manchester Metropolitan University, in partnership with Cardiff University, is studying how places are adapting using data provided by retail intelligence specialists Springboard. Using Big Data, we are analysing billions of pedestrian movements, going back 10 years, across 100 UK centres, to bring insight to this problem at a national scale. Our approach is revealing groundbreaking discoveries.

Above all, activity in UK town and city centres does not match the retail hierarchy model used in spatial planning since the 1930s which puts places in rigid categories. Using this approach, many towns made poor development decisions, becoming dependent on national retail chains to fill up space on their high streets. Of course many of these familiar brands have disappeared and those that remain are concentrating their store portfolios in the top 100 centres. It is no surprise then to find large numbers of vacant shops in most town centres and local planners and property owners scratching their heads about what to do next. In some cases, towns have produced costly marketing strategies to compete with places they are not actually in competition with. Or they have invested in costly regeneration schemes to create developments few people want to use. Put bluntly, they have been using historical and inaccurate assumptions about how people use town centres in a vain attempt to maintain their position in a defunct Retail Hierarchy.

The old Woolworths store in Bolton town centre lying empty in 2010. Image: Julie/Flickr/creative commons.

Places are not mono-functional. They are are complex and multiple. By analysing actual usage and activity we are beginning to make sense of this complexity. The reality is that the majority of UK centres simply serve their local communities but have been managed poorly and have been slow to adapt. To help places make the right decisions we have identified 25 interventions most likely to restore vibrancy and vitality to town centres. This allows us to identify new policy recommendations, of interest to any politician, public servant or concerned citizen wanting to combat the decline of the High Street and town centres.

In Greater Manchester, the city centre is faring well but the smaller town centres are losing trade and footfall. This is leaving behind a ghostly trail of abandoned shops and windswept empty precincts. However, some neighbourhoods thrive with local scenes, independent shops, bars and events. It is no wonder house prices are rising in places like Chorlton – the town offers something Jacobs would approve of.

Elsewhere, local centres provide a very poor environment for people. They need to adapt by creating convenient and pleasurable experiences for residents. We need to take a “whole place” perspective on decision making and action, which is exactly what devolution should enable. It should bring people together to discuss the best locations for health centres, bus stops, shops and housing to strengthen the overall attractiveness of local town centres. With devolution comes the opportunity to use new powers to strengthen our town centres and local communities – to make them sustainable and vibrant again.

Steve Millington is senior lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Budget 2017: Philip Hammond just showed that rejecting metro mayors was a terrible, terrible error

Sorry, Leeds, nothing here for you: Philip Hammond and his big red box. Image: Getty.

There were some in England’s cities, one sensed, who breathed a sigh of relief when George Osborne left the Treasury. Not only was he the architect of austerity, a policy which had seen council budgets slashed as never before: he’d also refused to countenance any serious devolution to city regions that refused to have a mayor, an innovation that several remained dead-set against.

So his political demise after the Brexit referendum was seen, in some quarters, as A Good Thing for devolution. The new regime, it was hoped, would be amenable to a variety of governance structures more sensitive to particular local needs.

Well, that theory just went out of the window. In his Budget statement today, in between producing some of the worst growth forecasts that anyone can remember and failing to solve the housing crisis, chancellor Philip Hammond outlined some of the things he was planning for Britain’s cities.

And, intentionally or otherwise, he made it very clear that it was those areas which had accepted Osborne’s terms which were going to win out. 

The big new announcement was a £1.7bn “Transforming Cities Fund”, which will

“target projects which drive productivity by improving connectivity, reducing congestion and utilising new mobility services and technology”.

To translate this into English, this is cash for better public transport.

And half of this money will go straight to the six city regions which last May elected their first metro mayor elections. The money is being allocated on a per capita basis which, in descending order of generosity, means:

  • £250m to West Midlands
  • £243 to Greater Manchester
  • £134 to Liverpool City Region
  • £80m to West of England
  • £74m to Cambridgeshire &d Peterborough
  • £59m to Tees Valley

That’s £840m accounted for. The rest will be available to other cities – but the difference is, they’ll have to bid for it.

So the Tees Valley, which accepted Osborne’s terms, will automatically get a chunk of cash to improve their transport system. Leeds, which didn’t, still has to go begging.

One city which doesn’t have to go begging is Newcastle. Hammond promised to replace the 40 year old trains on the Tyne & Wear metro at a cost of £337m. In what may or may not be a coincidence, he also confirmed a new devolution deal with the “North of Tyne” region (Newcastle, North Tyne, Northumberland). This is a faintly ridiculous geography for such a deal, since it excludes Sunderland and, worse, Gateshead, which is, to most intents and purposes, simply the southern bit of Newcastle. But it’s a start, and will bring £600m more investment to the region. A new mayor will be elected in 2018.

Hammond’s speech contained other goodies for cites too, of course. Here’s a quick rundown:

  • £123m for the regeneration of the Redcar Steelworks site: that looks like a sop to Ben Houchen, the Tory who unexpectedly won the Tees Valley mayoral election last May;
  • A second devolution deal for the West Midlands: tat includes more money for skills and housing (though the sums are dwarfed by the aforementioned transport money);
  • A new local industrial strategy for Greater Manchester, as well as exploring “options for the future beyond the Fund, including land value capture”;
  • £300m for rail improvements tied into HS2, which “will enable faster services between Liverpool and Manchester, Sheffeld, Leeds and York, as well as to Leicester and other places in the East Midlands and London”.

Hammond also made a few promises to cities beyond England: opening negotiations for a Belfast City Deal, and pointing to progress on city deals in Dundee and Stirling.


A city that doesn’t get any big promises out of this budget is – atypically – London. Hammond promised to “continue to work with TfL on the funding and financing of Crossrail 2”, but that’s a long way from promising to pay for it. He did mention plans to pilot 100 per cent business rate retention in the capital next year, however – which, given the value of property in London, is potentially quite a big deal.

So at least that’s something. And London, as has often been noted, has done very well for itself in most budgets down the year.

Many of the other big regional cities haven’t. Yet Leeds, Sheffield, Nottingham and Derby were all notable for their absence, both from Hammond’s speech and from the Treasury documents accompanying it.

And not one of them has a devolution deal or a metro mayor.

(If you came here looking for my thoughts on the housing element of the budget speech, then you can find them over at the New Statesman. Short version: oh, god.)

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason.

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