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Regenerating the high street: funding, localism, engagement

11:21:10 24 November 2021
37°49’38”S 144°59’26”E

Margaret J Wheatly once stated: ‘There is no power for change greater than a community discovering what it cares about.’ As Wheatley might say, local communities throughout Britain’s most neglected wards are alive to what they need and want and have given the present government a mandate for answering those needs and wants. Hence its pledge of £8.5 billion worth of central government ‘levelling-up’ funding, to be accessed by local authorities on condition of intent, including a clear desire and strategy for improving the lot of local communities by investing in local infrastructure that has a visible impact on people.


Strategy-wise, that impact breaks down three key areas: First, a process of comprehensive town centre and high street regeneration, including remediation and repurposing of vacant and brownfield sites. Second, the improving of local transport connectivity and infrastructure, including upgrades to local bus, road and cycle infrastructure. And third, the maintenance and regeneration of cultural, heritage, and civic assets. For local authorities, the funding and mandate offers the opportunity for a new approach to regeneration. It’s time to grab the bull by the horns.


As the retail entrepreneur and regeneration activist Bill Grimsby has repeatedly said, reinvention of urban centres is urgently required. Advocating a move away from out-of-town shopping centres and overreliance on big brand retail, Grimsby champions what he has memorably described as a form of localism-on-steroids, whereby cookie-cutter town-centres ‘de-clone’ themselves, using a mix of local and different activities to create community hubs based on health, education, entertainment, leisure arts, crafts, experiences, and heritage.


Local authorities bidding for Levelling-up funding would do well to take note. It’s vital, argues Grimsby and others, that councils learn how to differentiate themselves and move away from regeneration templates that have little or nothing to do with the identity and values of the local communities they represent. Rather than be at the beck and call of the mega-brand, they need to think like the mega-brand. They need, it is argued, to understand what it is that makes their borough, town, or city different from that of their neighbours, and to reinvent the place – of which they are custodians – on the basis of that.


The opposite of a top down, standardised, and oppressively functional approach to regeneration, it’s a bid that begins with a stakeholder-led understanding of what it is that makes this community our community, confident in its outlining of the reasons why people live, work and play here rather than anywhere else. It’s an understanding that has taken the time to properly address the unknown, the hidden, the underrepresented. Communities are diverse – be that cultural, demographic, ethnic, religious, disability, or gender. Many lack a voice, their activities either ignored or unseen. In identifying the gaps and representing the needs and wants of all, so we get to the nub of what makes a place quite unlike anywhere else.


A brand would call this its unique selling point, which is how Stockton-upon-Tees began the regeneration of its once blighted town centre. Moving away from a standard big box retail model, the local authority persuaded all – the local community, funders, and investors – of the need to ‘reinvent’ itself as a festival town, a strategy based on a highly successful 30-year old outdoor arts-and-theatre festival. Now a benchmark for experience-led regeneration, Stockton has turned itself around, its activity-led masterplan resulting in the most extraordinary town centres.


Clearly, regeneration is a complex, multi-dimensional issue that extends beyond bricks and mortar into economic and social revitalisation. Harnessing Wheatley’s awakened power of the community is critical to ensuring that that complexity is fully understood and planned for. It’s understanding that the purpose of the regeneration is that it should be as socially useful as it is commercially astute. It’s knowing that any investment – infrastructure or otherwise – is always and genuinely in the name of the local community. And it’s being financially judicious, leading with opex-led strategies, planning for the very long term, but starting now, growing the regeneration piece by piece by piece.


All of this lives or dies on the basis of the trust between – and constant engagement with – all stakeholders, including residents, commercial interests, council staff, and national government funding bodies. ‘Engagement’ is not a questionnaire or town hall meeting where policy makers garner feedback on their ideas. That’s not engagement – that’s a form of broadcasting masquerading as care. Engagement is setting out a co-created stall for regeneration, one managed by a partnership between local business, community interest, developer, architect, and the different authorities. As many local authorities acknowledge, genuine community engagement’s the only way forward. At the recent London Build Expo, Brent, Merton and Barking & Dagenham all remarked on the additional benefits to early community involvement, especially given that, when done right, it results in almost zero local objections. This is just the start: as everyone knows, more can be done in the name of co-(re)creating our town centres. We are all of us regenerating our futures. We’re in it together.


The funding for stakeholder-led regeneration plans is absolutely available. Of the £4.8 billion Levelling-Up Fund, £1.7 billion has already been awarded in the first round to 105 projects. Approximately £2.35 billion has been paid out by the Towns Fund to 100 projects. Another £1.57 billion has come from the post-pandemic Culture Recovery Fund. At least 58 high street projects have benefited to the tune of £587 million from the Future High Streets Fund. Welcome Back Fund’s already granted £9.4 million from its £56 million treasure chest. All this is accessible to the local authority who puts its community at the centre of its planning. Again, time to grab the bull by the horns – and now.


Damian Mears has spent almost 20 years working in the built environment, ensuring that multi-million dollar public-interest projects serve the people they’re meant to serve. If you’d like to learn more about our thoughts on high street regeneration, please do get in contact. Also, we contributed earlier this year to the high street section of RIBA published Rethink Design Guide: Architecture for a post-pandemic world (2021), which gives a fair idea of our approach. 


Hero image credit: masterplan for Stockton waterfront; photo by Stockton Council. Teaser image credit: Stockton International Riverside Festival; French circus company Furinkai performing a piece called Origami; photo by Stuart Boulton.



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