Last autumn money from the Towns Fund was poured into marginal constituencies. It emerged that 60 of 61 areas out of a total of 101 towns chosen by ministers to benefit from £25m were either Conservative-held seats or Tory targets.
Labour chair of the Public Accounts Committee Meg Hillier has called ministers’ decision not to consult with mayors during the selection process for the £3.6bn fund ‘very short-sighted’. And, speaking at the recent MJ Future Forum, head of the National Audit Office Gareth Davies said transparency had ‘suffered a bit in the pandemic and we don’t want that to become a bad habit’ – citing the Towns Fund as one example.
So the Towns Fund has got off to a controversial start. But it remains the case that many of the places that secured a share of the money are still far from safe from the damage being wrought by the pandemic. The scale of the hit taken by UK town and city centres at the start of lockdown was huge, with relative recovery rates as the national lockdown has eased affected by factors including working patterns, local peaks in infection rates and local restrictions.
As we enter a second wave of COVID-19, can the Towns Fund make a significant enough impact, given the enormity of the crisis?
The Towns Fund Delivery Partner is a multi-disciplinary consortium of organisations led by Arup, with Nichols, FutureGov, Copper Consultancy, Grant Thornton and Savills.
Joanna Rowelle, Towns Fund delivery partner lead and integrated city planning director at Arup, told The MJ the fund is ‘a large part of supporting our whole towns and places that have not benefited equally from UK growth’.
She said it was central to the Government’s ‘levelling up agenda’ – aiming to help the towns ‘recover, renew and regenerate’. The consortium is offering direct advice, tools and access to learning ‘as well as facilitating opportunities for towns to work together to overcome common challenges, share knowledge and approaches’.
According to Ms Rowelle, councils can draw on the consortium’s ‘decades of shared experience in leadership development, community engagement, business case development, regeneration, economic development, design, place-shaping and other specialist expertise’.
She said the Towns Fund represents a ‘once-in-a-generation opportunity for communities and towns to develop a shared vision and compelling narrative for change, and access the resources to build stronger futures’.
Mike Palin is a former chief executive of St Helens MBC, a former executive director of a Local Enterprise Partnership and managing director of GC Consulting. He believes we are not going to see an end of property-led regeneration, as ‘there is simply too much at stake in the economy as a whole and even for many local councils’.
He added: ‘What we do need to do is think about the complementary activities that support local benefits from that regeneration and especially in terms of local employment.’
In his view, COVID-19 ‘will change the way some people will work and this might create opportunities for some town and district centres to repurpose their offer, but this will not be universal’. Proximity to a competing centre, access to transport, the occupation and skills mix of local people, and also the physical attractiveness of centres ‘will vary and will need careful consideration for anyone thinking about the future’.
He emphasised that the existing regeneration funds available from Government are almost entirely for capital projects, which take time to mobilise, ‘and their real economy results can take years to have an effect’.
He concluded: ‘Places will need to think beyond COVID in terms of how they deploy these resources – as being blunt, they’re unlikely to help the immediate recovery required. Repurposing town centres based on the longer terms shifts that are happening has to be the aim.’
The latest data from the Centre for Cities High Streets Recovery Tracker shows that although all cities had a sharp drop in activity because of the lockdown, some are seeing it return faster than others.
Chief executive of Centre for Cities Andrew Carter told The MJ: ‘Bournemouth, for example, is one of the best performers. It’s one of the strongest recovery high streets for us. That is mainly because people in Bournemouth didn’t go abroad. They used the facilities of Bournemouth. And others who didn’t go abroad as they usually did went to places like Bournemouth and spent a bit of money down there.’
Are places that are fighting back creatively doing so despite a lack of vision and support from central Government? ‘Yes, more often than not. They’re doing things on a shoestring, almost. They’re doing things that are making best use of the resources they’ve got.’
He added: ‘We’re still waiting for real money in relation to the Future High Streets Fund or the Towns Fund. We’ve had the announcements but we haven’t had the cash. All the while things are not necessarily recovering or getting better at the rate we would like them to.’
Will cities such as London ever see a return to pre-pandemic activity levels? ‘The data tells us the centres of our big cities have seen the slowest recovery. But we should not assume that the lack of recovery in London is driving the recovery somewhere else.
‘What we’ve seen in London is a mild recovery on the entertainment side’, he continued. ‘But people are not going into London to work. That’s exactly the same pattern in places like Manchester, Bristol, Leeds , Birmingham and Sheffield.’
During the working week those places are struggling, he added: ‘They have mild recovery on the evening and at weekends driven by leisure and hospitality, whereas the strongest recovery has been in our seaside and smallest towns.’
He said areas such as York had taken the ‘pandemic and the pause in terms of car use and really tried to reconfigure the high street and the town centre more generally to make it less car-friendly and more pedestrian, public transport and tourist-friendly’.
Simon Brereton is head of economic growth at York City Council. He emphasised to The MJ that COVID-19 had accelerated trends ‘that had been happening anyway.’
He added: ‘This isn’t anything new. There’s the narrative of the death of the high street. Everyone can see what’s been happening in terms of changes of patterns of who uses city centres and high streets, and that varies so much from place to place – and within place as well.’
The general trend to online shopping has been massively accelerated by COVID, according to Mr Brereton. The focus on how we use our leisure time ‘whether that’s locally or around tourism has really changed places as well’, he said.
‘York has always been somewhere that people come to as a day out and that’s really increased over the last 20 years. Centre for Cities data shows that before COVID the typical make up of people in the city centre was that two-thirds would be people from outside of York.’
He added: ‘What you’ve got to look at is who are the customers that this place is serving? Why do people use it and where are people coming from? You can’t really categorise city centres by the size of the place or by whether they are old or new. It’s down to who uses it and why are they here?’
Philippa Venables is head of strategic growth and place at Swindon BC. She told The MJ: ‘What we are seeing is that people are coming into our centre from our suburbs. Our recovery is probably similar to the other economic recoveries that we’ve had in that it does hit hard. But Swindon comes back stronger.’
This is due to Swindon’s ‘sound offer’ she added. ‘The retail offer is good. There is a case for repurposing and reshaping the town centre that we will be making. But Swindon far outperforms its perception.’ In broader economy terms, much of Swindon’s work has had to move to digital. The flagship business growth scheme, Tech Swindon, focused on building the town’s technology ecosystem, had to go into a virtual delivery programme because of the pandemic, said Ms Venables.
She added: ‘It’s probably become even more successful than it might have done. But it’s these unintended consequences that are still working to strengthen our economy. We know the sectors that have grown and we are looking to foster those strengths that have come out of this situation.’
Creative and nimble approaches are emerging. Watford BC has linked up with messaging service WhatsApp to boost its high street. Returning to Mr Carter, his view is that the most successful centres ‘have had a real sense of what they want to do and what they want to achieve’.
But that aspiration has been married with a degree of pragmatism and realism, he believes. ‘For example, Swindon has said it doesn’t want its place to be the same as it was. It wants to change it for the better – but it is not aspiring to be the centre of Bristol or London. That would, frankly, be silly.’
He concluded: ‘It’s a marriage between a clarity of purpose, but tempered with a bit of realism about where you are and what is feasible, while still in a difficult context.’
Source: Centre for Cities High Streets recovery tracker
Data period: 13 February- 1 September 2020
Date updated: 9 September 2020