Your town, your future – Audit Wales regeneration study
Ahead of our Online Event on May 20, the team working on our Your Town, Your Future report into town centre regeneration share their thoughts.
As the pandemic continues to take its toll on our town centres, it’s clear that the future will be very different to the past. Recent research shows that one in every seven shops is now empty on Welsh high streets and profits have fallen by roughly 40% in the last 12 months.
These sharp declines follow a longer-term decay in many town centres with increasing vacancies and the loss of key institutions like banks, post offices and essential public services. The drift to digital services, the growth of online shopping, up by 10% in the last 12 months, and ongoing challenges of business rates and out of town retail, requires public bodies to take brave and bold decisions to help turn the tide.
It’s not surprising therefore to see Welsh Governments COVID-19 Reconstruction Plan promoting town centre regeneration as a key priority. These words are important, actions more so. And that’s why the Welsh Government has invested nearly £0.5 billion in regeneration of towns in the last seven years and continues to do so going forward.
Audit Wales has been delivering a study looking at town centres in Wales and their future. Members of the project team – Nick Selwyn, Meleri Bethell, Matt Brushett and Sara Leahy – provide different reflections on what they have learnt on this study.
The last 14 months have been a challenge for everyone – unable to meet up and see family, friends and colleagues; becoming increasingly numb to the daily updates on infections and deaths; and seeing society and services change in ways we never envisaged.
And for Audit Wales it’s been no different.
Back in March 2020 when we started scoping our review of town centre regeneration the team came together and started to plan the study. Looking back, it’s clear I never thought the pandemic would last this long (who did!) and require us to become very creative in how we deliver this work.
And just like the towns in Wales – we’ve had to learn to adapt and what we do, and how we do it, feels very different 14 months on.
We launched the study in 8 months ago as we ended lock down 1. Since then we’ve surveyed over 2,000 people and 450 businesses in Wales on their town centres. We’ve interviewed every lead officer for regeneration in councils and numerous others, read a huge number of documents and analysed vast amounts of data. We’ve also heard and read many peoples stories on the future of their towns: the highs, the lows, the good, the bad, the brave and optimistic. We’ve also gone into and come out of two more lock downs.
My main reflection is that we’ve delivered a huge amount of work in a very short timescale. We’ve learnt a lot; adapted hugely; found different, often better, ways of working; and continue to wonder if we’ll ever see each other in the flesh again!
The Austrian Philosopher Martin Bruber’s famous quote - ‘All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveller is unaware’ - perfectly summarises my experience on this project.
Fast forward to Spring 2021 and we’re now at the point of drawing our findings together and will be reporting in the summer. On May 20th we’ll be holding a webinar to outline some of our findings and listen to some of the inspirational stories about regeneration from people across Wales and further afield. Another first for us, a webinar to collect evidence rather than report findings.
All in all its been exciting, thought provoking and, dare I say it, enjoyable.
“You can take the person out of the place, but you can’t take the place out of a person” is a saying that perfectly describes the relationship I have with my hometown, Aberystwyth. The same saying is also true about the town:
- I currently live in,
- where I studied at university,
- where my extended family live,
- where I’ll live in the future…
…the list could be endless. It made me realise that no matter where someone lives, they may hold a high level of interest in multiple Town Centres across the country and beyond. This is one of the many reasons why this project has been particularly interesting for me.
From the work, I’ve enjoyed understanding a bit more about specific opportunities and challenges facing Town Centres and hearing success stories about how communities have managed to turn things around. The work has shown me that there is more than one way to make a Town Centre a thriving place, and that what worked in one community may not work for others. This just shows that each town is unique, and this is something to be proud of.
The past year has been particularly challenging, with the closures of many high street shops in Town Centres across the country being one of the many side effects. I’m optimistic that this will be used as an opportunity for change, perhaps by attracting more independent local shops to the high streets and using commercial floor space for various other uses in addition to retail. I’m confident that in the near future our Town Centres could be oozing uniqueness and could be somewhere that we feel even more ownership towards.
This is one of the more interesting studies I’ve been involved with, and what first struck me was our study couldn’t have been more timely. When the pandemic struck, and many of us slipped into our online virtual world, one of the first questions it threw up was ‘how relevant are town centres in this ‘new normal’ environment? ‘Do people still value them?’
Of course Covid had such an immediate impact on town centres, but it only accelerated what business and community leaders knew was coming. Challenges had existed for years with shifting online shopping habits and expectations but they didn’t expect to have to deal with it overnight.
Our survey of over 2000 provided the answers to these initial questions:
People need towns. They value them. They shape their identity.
But posed a further question - are they still fit for purpose?
Expectations are changing. People love their local stores, but they want more than retail. People feel isolated and are craving experiences, which gives towns a unique opportunity to offer something different.
Over the course of the study, I’ve seen how regeneration is so much more than physical regeneration. Towns are a complex meeting place of diverse people, ideas and culture. They can be sources of happiness and inspiration, rich in the arts and culture. They can be event spaces, market places or places to unwind and connect with nature. Regeneration is not only about rebuilding, but about regenerating a town’s fortune and prospects, inspiring its people and creating safe spaces for people to feel fulfilled.
This takes brave decisions based on evidence, expertise and long term thinking. Councils play an instrumental role as facilitators of change. Perhaps by creating open space, not being afraid to use enforcement powers to clean the town up and making bold decisions.
For leaders, this means recognising your assets and building on them. It means not trying to be all things to all people. Some towns will heavily rely on others in their area. There is nothing wrong with this as long as it’s part of a strong local strategy. Other, perhaps more rural towns will be fiercely independent with their local town being their lifeline, requiring strong independent focus. Key to identifying a town’s independence is to look at what the data tells us about how people use towns. The IWA has looked at this, using data on people movement, assets and deprivation indicators to identify a town’s interdependency with the Understanding Welsh Places interactive map
We’ve met so many enthusiastic community leaders and passionate staff / councillors across local government, all striving to make their town centre better. We’ve seen that this can only happen when people work together. Councils need to ensure the foundations are there years in advance, and set up mechanisms to involve others, so when people in the community spark off great ideas for change, they can help shape their own town and their future.
Looking back at the work for this study, I reflect on the earlier blog I wrote about town centre regeneration. I previously talked about the nostalgic way that I, along with many others I’m sure, look back at the heyday of high streets including trips to buy pick and mix and CDs from Woolworths.
Several months on since that blog, and as we move onto the final stages of the study, I’ve realised how much wider and more complex town centre regeneration is. Over the course of the work, we’ve heard about aspects of past regeneration which in hindsight was less constructive and sustainable as what was hoped or intended:
- out of town retail parks;
- building large retail focused shopping centres;
- the infrastructure built mainly around cars for accessing towns; and
- building key public services including schools, public sector offices and hospitals out of towns.
These themes represent decades of decisions and trends since the post-war era, but it’s where we are, and the decline of towns centres doesn’t have to be inevitable. While it’s important to acknowledge this backdrop and the challenges, it is also key to plan for the future.
But what makes a town thrive? Well, at its core are people.
Towns need to ‘work’ for the people they serve and to help make communities resilient. Towns can be a key location for work, socialising, leisure, exercise, culture, housing and most of all, just a place to enjoy spending our time. Throughout the last few months, we have heard of examples that stand out, where towns and communities can thrive and towns provide for their communities.
The Good Practice Exchange webinar later on in May will be an opportunity to hear and reflect on some of the examples of the work happening around regeneration in towns throughout Wales and further afield.
As the title to the event suggests, ‘Your town, your future’, the emphasis is on people being at the heart of towns, but also the emphasis is on a future focus for regeneration.
- What do you need from your town centre?
- What brings you to your town?
- What do you want to see in your town in the future?
Come along to our webinar on May 20 to explore these questions further and to start a conversation on the future of town centres in Wales.