Executive Chairman, Tim Byles, CBE, writes about the recent event on revitalising town centres which he recently chaired:

I was delighted to chair the recent Local Government Chronicle event on revitalising town centres where leading local government figures questioned the value of making local authorities compete for a pot of national funding to improve their high streets. The restrictiveness of a one size fits all bidding process was highlighted at the event along with the concern that funding simply goes to those with the best bid writer rather than the most in need.

The speakers at the session discussed the effectiveness of applying for the government’s Levelling Up Fund in order to help struggling high streets. The session focused on the town centre estate, what the most appropriate locations are for retail, housing and office space and the services required to support a thriving high street.

Panellists called for a more individual approach to funding town centre rejuvenation that could be led by the local community, and by young people especially. There was a consensus that residents of a town are best placed to know what their area needs and how to entwine their provincial heritage and unique assets to design a vibrant high street.

Local government leaders also called for high streets to be regenerated in the image of the 1920s, with a return of civic and employment spaces that have been squeezed out over recent decades by retail units. Going forward it is likely that the current commercial focus of high streets will decline and be replaced with a more experiential culture, including more space for art and nature.

The recent local election results show that people have listened to the government’s promises to level up their communities. There is no more visible demonstration of the health of a community than the condition of its high street. Our high streets are the heartbeats of our towns, however they need help to adapt to the different demands the public now has for them. Serious investment is called for so that local councils can deliver the mix of social, retail, work and residential spaces people want.

I believe action needs to be taken to ensure that forgotten town centres are guaranteed money from the Levelling Up Fund. Pitting towns and local authorities against each other is not helpful at a time when the pandemic has ensured that practically everywhere needs to level up. The government should, at the very least, look again at how the fund is administered to make sure that towns within parliamentary constituencies are not competing against each other in order to regenerate their high streets. Building back better must start in our town centres.

The Queen’s Speech rightly focused on overhauling our planning system, which for too long has often been a barrier to development. However, a relaxation of permitted development rights needs to be done carefully, especially with regard to removing the need for planning permission to turn some commercial spaces into residential ones. Town centres are like a fragile ecosystem and a balance of amenity must be preserved.