Towns have been rising fast up the policy ladder, writes Janet Sillett. Cities seemed at one time to be getting all the attention but more recently there has been no shortage of analysis about towns and a bewildering number of initiatives to meet the challenges many UK towns are facing.
The launch of the Centre for Towns in September 2017 reflected this new focus. The debate around the future of our high streets has also given birth to many papers, panels, plans and reviews.
Why this focus? Because the recent history of the high street and town centres has been one of difficulty and decline. There have been growing challenges from the threat to shops from online shopping to the ageing of towns – cities are getting younger and towns older – and lots of other problems in between. Of course not all towns are the same – those, for example, in ex heavy industrial areas are generally struggling more than historical market towns, many seaside towns seem to be having serious problems.
I went to a fringe meeting at the Labour Party conference that underlined how topical these issues are – it was packed, despite a lot of dramatic politics going on in the conference (and torrential rain and wild winds getting to the venue).
Lisa Nandy, MP for Wigan outlined some of the difficulties her town faced, including the distance many residents felt from the political debate going on in Westminster – ‘buses not brexit’. People lack control over their lives and cuts in services have made many feel more isolated. A point that was echoed by Jamie Driscoll, the new North Tyne metro mayor and other speakers. There has to be political change as well as investment. The result of the EU referendum has to be seen partly in the context of communities and towns that felt left behind.
There were many ideas proposed for improving towns, such as ensuring wealth doesn’t leak out from towns by building up a local asset base, providing a level playing field for small businesses and facilitating social value contracts using local labour. And town centres need to offer the best built environment, green spaces and community driven initiatives. And how should social impacts and outcomes be measured and valued?
We have this year been publishing a series of briefings on towns. They have examined the challenges towns face and the possible solutions to what can be sometimes systemic problems. In High Streets and Town Centres in 2030 we ask whether what laudable aspirations are always practical – such as proposals for high streets to become places of community interaction, based around activities and services. Does the idea of public services relocating to the high street premises contradict the recent movement towards public services rationalising their estates and co-locating into larger hub buildings?
Our briefing on breaking the cycle of decline in Britain’s towns looks beyond the retail and leisure offer in the centre of towns to the residential areas beyond, the transport connectivity which feeds in to them and the need for public service provision and housing stock to evolve to meet the needs of demographic change within them. It concludes that much wider collaboration at both a planning and delivery stage is needed, incorporating a wide range of needs and occurring between both the public and private sector, those with the responsibility for planning and delivering local services, and, interestingly, between currently ‘competing’ neighbouring areas. This is where combined authorities can play a crucial role, with core cities (for example Manchester) working increasingly collaboratively with smaller conurbations (Bury, Oldham, Rochdale) in their orbit, with explicitly equal status at a decision-making level.
Increasingly, UK local government has to look beyond its borders to what is happening globally. A previous blog mentioned how towns and cities in Eastern Europe were facing similar challenges, for example how small cities and towns near major cities like Warsaw can retain young, skilled residents. Our briefing on the exodus from rural areas and towns in high-income countries looks at some of these issues from an international perspective.
Towns are central to identity and prosperity in the UK and Ireland. Two-thirds of us live in small and medium-sized towns. We will continue to publish briefings and do more detailed policy work on towns – and that means looking at international evidence as well as evidence closer to home of what can work in transforming towns.
Janet Sillett is LGiU’s Head of Briefings.