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.

 
 
 
 

Brexit is an opportunity for cities to take back control

Leeds Town Hall. Image: Getty.

The Labour leader of Leeds City Council on the future of Britain’s cities.

As the negotiations about the shape of the UK’s exit from the EU continue, Britain’s most economically powerful cities outside London are arguing that the UK can be made stronger for Brexit – by allowing cities to “take back control” of service provision though new powers and freedoms

Core Cites UK, the representative voice of the cities at the centre of the ten largest economic areas outside London, has just launched an updated version of our green paper, ‘Invest Reform Trust’. The document calls for radical but deliverable proposals to allow cities to prepare for Brexit by boosting their productivity, and helping to rebalance the economy by supporting inclusive economic growth across the UK.

Despite representing areas responsible for a quarter of the UK’s economy and nearly a third of exports, city leaders have played little part in the development of the government’s approach to Brexit. Cities want a dialogue with the government on their Brexit plans and a new settlement which sees power passing from central government to local communities.

To help us deliver a Brexit that works for the UK’s cities, we are opening a dialogue with the EU Commission’s Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier to share our views of the Brexit process and what our cities want to achieve.

Most of the changes the Core Cities want to see can already be delivered by the UK. To address the fact that the productivity of UK cities lags behind competitors, we need to think differently and begin to address the structural problems in our economy before Brexit.

International evidence shows that cities which have the most control over taxes raised in their area tend to be the most productive.  The UK is significantly out of step with international competitors in the power given to cities and we are one of the most centralised countries in the world.  


Boosting the productivity of the UK’s Core Cities to the UK national average would increase the country’s national income by £70-£90bn a year. This would be a critical boost to the UK’s post-Brexit economic success.

Our green paper is clear that one-size fits all policy solutions simply can’t deal with the complexities of 21st century Britain. We need a place-based approach that looks at challenges and solutions in a different way, focused on the particular needs of local communities and local economies.

For example, our Core Cities face levels of unemployment higher than the national average, but also face shortages of skilled workers.  We need a more localised approach to skills, education and employment support with greater involvement from local democratic and business leaderships to deliver the skills to support growth in each area.

The UK will only make a success of Brexit if we are able to increase our international trade. Evidence shows city to city networks play an important role in boosting international trade.  The green paper calls for a new partnership with the Department of International trade to develop an Urban Trade programme across the UK’s cities and give cities more of a role in international trade missions.

To deliver economic growth that includes all areas of the UK, we also need to invest in our infrastructure. Not just our physical infrastructure of roads, rail telecommunications and so forth, but also our health, education and care infrastructure, ensuring that we are able to unlock the potential of our core assets, our people.

Whether you think that Brexit is a positive or a negative thing for the UK, it is clear that the process will be a challenging one.  Cities have a key role to play in delivering a good Brexit: one that sees local communities empowered and economic prosperity across all areas of the UK.

Cllr Judith Blake is leader of Leeds City Council.