In 2019, the UK government announced two funds to stimulate Englandâ€™s towns, many of which have been fettered by their industrial legacy. The COVID-19 crisis has only increased the need to invest in â€˜new localismâ€™ â€“ creating places that people want to live and work. Stephen Cox shares how leading towns are getting started.
What can you achieve with £4.6Bn? The £1Bn Future High Streets Fund and £3.6Bn Towns Fund were set up to assist the development of more diverse and attractive economies in Englandâ€™s post-industrial or service centre towns. We are helping towns across the country to develop their visions and strategic plans for investment.
Through involvement and observation, weâ€™ve identified five key challenges and innovative ways to overcome them, to catalyse change.
Five principles for regeneration
- Itâ€™s vital that towns see the funding as an opportunity to alter the overarching economic narrative, not as a way of realising just a handful of favoured projects â€“ however attractive these may be in the short-term. Towns have been showing real ambition and strategic vision. Split many ways, £4.6Bn is not enough to change a localityâ€™s outcomes, but can be used to set a vision for growth that will attract future public and private investments.
- Getting local stakeholders around the table is crucial for setting out a strategic vision that all can support and thereby gains the critical mass to attract further investment. The vision, strategy and project prioritisation need to recognise the interdependencies and synergies between infrastructure and services: aligning multiple delivery plans on the same goal can create a â€˜network effectâ€™ that is transformational. For example, good internet connection is as essential as capital projects to create a liveable town if businesses and remote-working employees are going to be persuaded to stay local. Engagement when projects are being prioritised must continue through the case-making and delivery phases.
- Investment in walking, recreation and environmental assets, with diverse and inclusive high streets and local amenities, takes on a new significance when the goal is to create a thriving local economy â€“ a town where people continue to want to live. This may be more important than ever in an economy shaped by COVID-19, with more people working from home. A vision-led approach to planning, that acknowledges uncertainty and can accommodate change, is essential.
- In many instances new infrastructure will be required to enable the desired improvements â€“ roads to divert traffic, for example. Making these changes, with the disruption it entails, presents a tough communication challenge, but they are key to unlocking a desirable â€˜new localismâ€™.
- Strengthening the economy and delivering positive social and environmental outcomes for local people are the central objective of new localism. But it is important that past mistakes are not repeated: strategies for town investment must be sensitive to the essence of place, local heritage, culture and the essential role of local delivery agencies.
Economic change delivering social outcomes
The Future High Streets Fund and Towns Fund have stimulated conversation, visioning, optioneering and policy appraisal across the country. As with all government funding agreements, the impact of the investments on towns and their citizens will be closely watched. Economic change, physical regeneration and the delivery of social outcomes creating better places to live and nicer places to visit are what we can look forward to as part of national COVID-19 recovery.
Social outcomes are at the heart of our purpose. So, naturally, weâ€™ll be watching too. We will also be doing all we can to assist the investment plans we have worked on to deliver lasting, positive economic, social and environmental change â€“ an attractive new localism.
Stephen Cox is Mott MacDonaldâ€™s leader for business cases, economic development and regeneration