Being crowned The MJ Local Authority of the Year is an enormous achievement for Barnsley and our success has inevitably prompted questions from other councils asking: ‘How have you done that?’
Some have been about the awards process itself. For example: ‘Did we have a professional bid writer?’ The answer is no, it was one of our National Graduate Development Programme graduates and our communications and marketing team who wrote our submission.
My advice to any council would be to think about when to apply. Barnsley had applied before and was on the final shortlist in 2016. I think the difference between then and now is that, in the transformation of our place, we moved from having very impressive plans to actual delivery. We believed that with the success of our town centre regeneration, and The Glass Works in particular, it was our year to win.
People are also interested in finding out how we have been so successful in transforming our town centre.
If you don’t know Barnsley, it is a proud market town with a strong industrial heritage. But closing mines devastated the area, and just as we were finding our feet, austerity hit. Various attempts with the private sector to transform our town centre had come and gone and like many places, Barnsley town centre was in decline. The turning point was a brave decision by the council to rebuild part of the town centre.
The Glass Works is a multi-purpose development hosting a 13-screen state-of-the-art Cineworld, a new council-run library, an NHS Community Diagnostic Centre and a high-quality town square which is the focal point of our exciting events calendar. Plus, a host of retail and restaurant brands including Next, FLANNELS, and the Botanist, mixed in with our own home-grown success stories like Dolly’s Desserts, while remembering our roots with a modern market experience.
It has been incredibly well received by the public. Footfall is now a third higher than it was before the pandemic and hardly a day goes by when I don’t receive a comment on social media or in person from someone who has not been to Barnsley for ages and has been wowed by the changes we have made.
Part of its success is how all the different uses feed on each other.
The NHS Community Diagnostic Centre brings people into Barnsley who may not have visited for years. After their appointments, they go for a coffee and visit the market and like it so much that they promise to return. People coming to the cinema often also go to the shops or for a meal. The fountains in the square and our Library @ the Lightbox provide great free family attractions.
The council was very aware that undertaking such a commercial development would require new expertise and we have used external experts to complement our local knowledge. This meant procuring Turner and Townsend as our Development Management Organisation who worked closely with Barnsley MBC teams to achieve brilliant results, and engaging Queensberry to support retail fit-out, developing our centre management operating model and, most importantly, our leasing strategy. This led to The Glass Works being 90% occupied by floorspace at present. Their teams were integrated with council-led programme and project boards which enabled us to adopt an agile approach while managing risk for the council at the same time.
Our plans were also based on strong research. We were the largest town in Europe not to have a multi-screen cinema, so we worked with our leasing agent to build a relationship with Cineworld and secured one of the few cinemas with all three big screen types – IMAX, 4DX and Screen X.
We also knew we had high levels of leakage due to our poor retail and leisure offer. We knew the market was there to bring people in if only we could change what was available.
The redevelopment has not been cheap and has involved £214m of council funds, made up of £50m in reserves, £138m of prudential borrowing and £26m in external grants and contributions.
We were realistic about this from the outset and all costs were factored into our medium-term financial strategy, including borrowing costs, grant funding and ongoing impact on service budgets. This meant future income forecasts were de-risked, so we could make brave decisions on lettings.
It does mean that in the new Oflog metrics, we are more indebted than other councils but as a development, it washes its face with rental, service charges, business rates income and resident satisfaction.
From the start, the council realised it needed to have effective governance arrangements that could support rapid decision-making. Every decision couldn’t be a cabinet decision and day-to-day authority was delegated to the project board.
The board was consistent and proactive throughout all phases of the build. It drove the programme forward, challenged costs and managed risks and mitigations. We knew where the challenges were and worked quickly to move past them.
This development has not been without risks and early on it had many critics. A key reason for our success has been the political vision and bravery of our leader, Cllr Sir Steve Houghton.
It has been a wonderful thing to be able to bring home the trophies and get Barnsley MBC the recognition it deserves.
Sarah Norman is chief executive of Barnsley MBC