The ABC of town centre revival

This post is by Dr Nicholas Falk, director of the URBED Trust.

The coronavirus pandemic justifies radical changes in how the UK deals with failing town centres. Pollution from the revival of car use and home deliveries after the lockdown is making public health worse, and many towns are going in the wrong direction, as more local jobs are lost. Yet, by restoring town centres, the UK could create many more homes and improve wellbeing, while reducing carbon emissions without eating up green fields. Early results scould be secured if the government combined the aims of its White Paper on Planning for the future with incentivising local initiatives through a simple ABC: Ambition Brokerage and Connectivity.

Ambition:  promote urban living as the ‘new normal’
Difficult times call for ambitious thinking.  In 1942 at the height of the Second World War Oxford economist William Beveridge produced his great plan for creating a welfare state from a wartime economy. The ‘Five Giants’ he identified, including ‘ignorance’ and ‘squalor’, are still relevant. Desolate land was mobilised in Comprehensive Development Areas and New Towns were commissioned to bring jobs and homes together in green settings.

Before the lockdown, I visited a range of town centres to check the health of their High Streets. The historic city of Canterbury has lost most of its shops to a new shopping centre, and there was little to buy except ice cream. In post-industrial Wolverhampton, the Victorian high street buildings stood empty, instead of being reused by the university. The most depressing sight were empty Georgian terraces on the edge of coastal Ramsgate High Street. Broadstairs is not much better without obvious places to eat or drink or specialist shops to tempt the visitor.

In the ‘new normal’ of Covid-19, the centre of London is quite dead. Neither office workers nor tourists keep the streets busy, except for a few streets in Soho and Covent Garden which allow people to eat outside, an unexpected benefit from the crisis. However, shops in suburban centres and smaller towns seem to be doing better. The country towns of Frome and Stroud offer a good choice of places to eat and fresh food is easy to obtain, with excellent markets. Car free streets keep residents healthy, and innovative housing has been built on the edge. Both towns show that beneficial change is possible.

Brokerage: agree quality deals
For positive changes to occur, local authorities must promote agreements with partners and investors. Here is URBED Trust’s simple four step prescription for recovery:

  1. Identify and map underused space within a kilometre or half a mile of stations close to town centres. Aerial photographs and rates returns and GIS will help. Town councils and civic societies should make use of Neighbourhood Plans to engage residents and property owners.
  2. Designate Housing Action Renewal Areas (HARAs) with ‘codes’ where planning permission will be granted subject to building regulations, as in Germany, to reduce the risks and delays.
  3. Provide fiscal incentives for investment; VAT on refurbishment in designated zones should be scrapped, but council tax charged on undeveloped sites, as in Denmark. The proposed Infrastructure Levy should help if it is ring-fenced. The Town Fund could lever in other funding.
  4. Land Assembly Zones (LAZ) should use the threat of compulsory purchase orders to avoid speculation where there are many owners. In France ZACs (Zones d’ Amenagement Concertes) join up public and private investment in both growth and renewal areas. Development corporations would help. 

Connectivity: develop areas served by rail
The collapse in business confidence, with a fall in property values of at least 12 per cent, according to the Investment Property Forum, makes it all the more important to develop well connected sites next to railway stations and town centres. One precedent is URBED’s masterplan for the New England Quarter in Brighton, where a former goods yard has been turned into a low energy mixed use scheme, and some 420 units built on 2.3 hectares, many of them zero energy.  On a similar site next to Colchester Town station and opposite a giant multi-storey car park, housing could take the place of an unrealised retail scheme and give life to the half-finished arts quarter. A new station on the underused Colchester to Clacton line for the University of Essex would connect a ‘garden town extension’ with the town centre, the coast and London. Smaller, walkable developments along the line could be served by a more frequent rail service and replace the car dependent new towns which a planning inspector rejected earlier this year.    

If more people live and worked near stations and town centres, better rail services would be viable. In Oxford, for example, there are 200 acres of underused property on either side of the main railway station and the branch line to Cowley is only used for occasional freight. The capital costs of reintroducing passenger services could be recovered from sharing the uplift in land values from development, as set out in URBED’s report on the Oxford Metro, which follows up Oxfordshire Futures 2050.  Like German or Swiss Shnellbahnen systems, SwiftRail services would use frequent short distance services rather than relying on heavy cross-country trains.

Easy as ABC?
With ambition, brokerage and the goal of super-connectivity, towns can build a better future. Forward thinking cities like Paris and Copenhagen have changed beyond recognition by prioritising the public realm and cycling, but so have historic university towns like Freiburg and Utrecht. In England, neighbourhoods in London are creating car free zones, but we should aim to create better neighbourhoods everywhere. Bringing back residents to support shops and services would fill the gaps, and help to achieve the goal of a greener economy.

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