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Change is afoot in town centres up and down the country. This month alone, another 30 towns in England were awarded over £700m from the Government, as part of the Town Deal programme to support local economies, create jobs and build back better from the pandemic. Combined with earlier funding, this brings the total allocation up to a staggering £2 billion to date, with 83 Town Deals having been granted since the programme first launched in 2019. And don’t forget; this is on top of the £830m awarded through the Future High Streets Fund and the £4.8 billion currently available through the Levelling Up Fund. So what’s the problem? Why aren’t we seeing more concrete signs of renewal?
Some might say there has never been a better time to access funds to support regeneration and renewal, whilst others will say it has been long overdue and does not go far enough to address some of the fundamental weaknesses and inequalities within the economy and society. What’s the reality?
A shortage of skills and experience
With significant sums of funding now secured, many Local Authorities are starting to think about delivery. But this calls for a very different skill set. One particular concern raised by many Local Authorities is how they can access the money needed to fund and recruit regeneration and property professionals that can help to take their vision forward. Finding town centre managers with the necessary skills and expertise to access the funds and deliver transformation has proved a challenge.
And the clock is ticking. Much of the funding comes with a tight and inflexible programme for when the money needs to be spent. As a result, a perfect storm has arisen. Local Authorities - weakened in terms of capacity and capability by years of austerity, and in some cases inexperienced in delivering large, complex regeneration schemes - now need to deliver at pace, using the funds that have been made available in a way that supports long term sustainable growth and recovery.
Taking the next step
It’s not an easy task, and there are a number of considerations that Local Authorities will need to take into account when getting themselves prepared and ready to deliver:
- Leadership – the vision and strategy for each town will have been set as part of the strategic case for funding bids. As further feasibility and business cases are developed, there will inevitably be difficult decisions that need to be made as part of the option appraisal process. At this point, there needs to be clear and decisive leadership to ensure that projects continue to align with the strategic plan and that timely decisions are made at key gateways to ensure they remain on track. This is important not only when it comes to maintaining commitment to the programme, but also giving confidence to other investors and partners.
- Programme Approach – town centre regeneration programmes are rarely delivered by one partner. They are delivered by multiple partners working on multiple projects across multiple funding streams. Successful town centre regeneration schemes are delivered through a Programme Office with clearly identified roles and responsibilities, reporting mechanisms, and monitoring of spend and benefit realization. This is often facilitated by digital platforms, which allow works to be coordinated and delivered efficiently and effectively.
It’s an approach we’ve seen work successfully for Cornwall Council. We recently worked with the Local Authority to review the readiness of 34 projects to move to the business case stage as part of their Town Deal programme. In setting up the Programme Office, we identified key risks, interdependencies and opportunities across the projects. This will result in delivering approximately £200m of town centre activity at pace if all funding is secured.
- Enabling works and quick wins – the delivery of town centre programmes is frequently complex and delivered over many years. Given the crisis on the high street, the need to recover quickly from the pandemic, and strict funding deadlines, there is a need for early, visible evidence of delivery. With careful planning and programming of works, even the most complex programmes can often be broken down into phases. This means that delivery can start quickly and not at the expense of future plans. This approach will also provide confidence to partners and other potential investors.
For example, on Warrington Town Centre, a Joint Venture between Muse Developments and Warrington Council, we provided consultancy services for the delivery of a £120m mixed used scheme, anchored by leisure and civic facilities including offices, a cinema, restaurants, traditional markets, car parking and significant public realm, which integrated into the existing town centre. The first phase was delivered by splitting the contracts between enabling works, the multi-storey car park, retail and cinema, and offices to obtain the best value and the best mix of contractors to meet the programme objectives and timeline.
- Private sector engagement – as part of any successful town centre programme, support and investment by the private sector will be required, whether to deliver Government funded projects or take advantage of opportunities enabled by these funded projects. Local Authorities will need to identify the right type of partner and the most appropriate way of working with them that reflects all the following:
- the nature of the proposal
- the timescales for delivery
- the amount of investment they are able to make, or interest they would like to retain in the scheme in short, medium or long term
- the level of control they would like, or need to have, over issues such as design quality, sustainability and wider economic outcomes
- their internal capacity and capability
- their approach and appetite to risk.
These were all considerations for Wigan Council, who we recently worked with to help procure a Joint Venture partner for the redevelopment of the Galleries shopping centre as part of the Future High Streets Fund programme. This £130m scheme will see the existing shopping centre transformed into a multi-media centre that includes a six-screen cinema; music and e-sports venue, as well as a new hotel, market hall, over 450 new homes, and landscaped public realm for annual outdoor events. We are currently retained to provide an ongoing technical role to look after the Council’s interests, including advice around cost, quality and programme.
Warrington Town Centre
Copyright: Muse Developments
Galleries shopping centre, Wigan
Copyright City Heart + BCEGI
Supporting long term regeneration
The regeneration of our town centres and high streets is complex and will take time. But as a key part of the Government’s Levelling Up agenda, will be integral when it comes to supporting long term renewal and sustainability, as well economic recovery from the pandemic.
Significant Government funds are available to support ambitious visions and deliverable plans. However, successful delivery and investment of these funds will be reliant upon Local Authorities setting up appropriate delivery mechanisms and governance arrangements to make this happen. Collaboration will be key. The most successful town centres are those with proactive town centre management, delivered in partnership by the private and public sectors, and with the needs of the local community fixed firmly at their core. If we can get this right, the future for our town centres looks bright indeed.
Contact Nick Kealey at firstname.lastname@example.org