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Hand soap, toilet roll and pasta. These items were on most people’s shopping list as Wales went into its first lockdown in mid-March. One of the things we all realised very quickly was the vital role key workers and local shops play in our lives.
The impact of coronavirus will be a talking point for years to come including the impact of coronavirus on our local town centres. This year, the Local Government National Studies team will look at the changes and challenges facing our town centres, and their importance in our communities.
Town centres have been at the heart of Welsh society for a long time. Regardless of where you are from and how old you are, we all have good memories of visiting our local town centres: buying our first record or CD from Woolworths, buying Christmas presents or going for a milky coffee with an aunt.
Town centres have and continue to give communities worth. They’ve created jobs. They have given us places to spend money, visit and spend time outside of work. They have been places to socialise, a reference point and forms part of our sense of identity.
A growing proportion of shoppers buy online. Many shoppers do their ’big shop’ in out of town supermarkets. A vast number of our high street shops are closing. People also like to visit places where there is more on offer than just shops.
Town centres have been changing for decades and some have kept pace with this. But we can all think of town centres that have been left behind and face big challenges. And the impact of COVID19 is bringing further change.
Changes to town centres are not a new thing. We can all recall the positive impact of regeneration projects improving the look and feel of some town centres. We can also recall how some regeneration had little impact and led to further challenges.
Regeneration can be a good thing for some and a bad thing for others. Demolishing old buildings, creating traffic free zones and out of town retail. These might have been good for some communities at some point, but what about the longer term sustainability of towns for the communities they serve?
We anticipate that our review will provide policy makers, businesses and the public with the opportunity to debate why towns and their centres are important and what needs to change to bring them to life.
We want to discuss the wider importance of regeneration. Not just the physical regeneration. But also, the social, environmental, cultural, health and economic wellbeing of communities who live and visit these towns. We see this review as a chance to ‘think big’ and be aspirational about the future of our towns.
I recently went to an online seminar on town centres and high streets across the UK. The panellists covered a range of topics for us to consider as part of our study:
Lots of ideas and options. But what is clear is that towns thrive when people thrive, and its people that are important.
We know that to successfully regenerate town centres and for towns to thrive, we need to learn and listen to lots of people’s opinions and perspectives. We will be talking to councillors, officers, regeneration specialists, businesses, national organisations, third sector organisations and most importantly – to you – the people who live, work and visit town centres.
We want you to provide us with your thoughts and experience on your town centre. While your local town centre will have changed a lot already and will face further changes in the future, these places can be sustainable, resilient and be at the heart of our Welsh communities in the future.
To complete our survey, please visit our website [opens in new window].
Sara Leahy is a Senior Auditor at Audit Wales and works in the local government team. She will be part of the team working on this study of town centre regeneration. In her spare time, Sara enjoys walks by the sea. And also of course enjoys walks around her local town centre.