Our high streets are too important to be left in the hands of a limited pool of policy makers and we need bigger place partnerships to unlock their potential, argues Cathy Parker
It’s been a challenging year for many of the nation’s high streets and retailers in particular. A favourite brand - Wilko - has folded and increases in shoplifting has not helped the already tough trading conditions. The recent announcement of £1bn of funding for Long Term Plans for Towns shows high streets and town centres are central to the current government’s levelling up agenda, but it feels the debate around our high streets is being conducted at the wrong level. We are looking at them, collectively, from a distant vantage point, trying to standardise and solve their challenges with increasingly bigger demands being made for everything from billions of investment to Royal Commissions.
That’s not to say big change is not needed, and funds are not welcome, but I would argue this should start more with a mindset change rather than competing for the most eye-catching announcement. The latest Long Term Plans for Towns gives some reason to be optimistic, as it starts with the premise that every place is different and local people and organisations will be more successful in responding to the challenges and opportunities in their towns. It eschews a one-size fits all model to focus on the priorities of local places.
A key tenet of this policy is that plans and investment are governed by place-based partnerships which have a firm commitment from leaders from across the private, community and public sector. These partnerships will encourage much more collaborative ways of working, and will be developed around a shared local vision. They will build new relationships with communities – and, just as importantly, build new relationships between national government and those communities.
If all goes well, the Long Term Plan for Towns could break free of a tired silo model where a few people in town halls make huge regeneration decisions, through building a bigger conversation and ensuring no expertise is side-lined.
Over the last four years, our work with the High Streets Task Force has shown us that more than a third of all towns we visited lacked any kind of place partnerships or place governance to deliver change at the town or high street level.
This means that vital stakeholders such as police, the business community, voluntary sector and community groups, health professionals, universities, housing providers and others are removed from a decision making process that too often fails to deliver the changes needed.
Naturally, this fosters resentment among local people - and at a time when we desperately need to see more creativity and fresh thinking in high streets, we should be welcoming new thinking not rejecting it. I’ve lost count of the great ideas I’ve heard from business, sports and health leaders for their high streets that continue to fall on deaf ears. Where there should be a shared local vision, there is all too often no vision - and this is why regeneration bosses continue to seek off-the-shelf solutions instead.
In truth, this has been the default position for high streets for too long. Much of the high street debate is narrow and unimaginative. By fixating on national chains it implies that every town needs the same shops in order to be successful. And when towns are brave enough to do things differently and come up with distinctive solutions to repurpose empty Debenhams buildings, re-design the public realm or animate their streets through fantastic events programmes, we don’t do nearly enough to celebrate this creative approach.
It’s little wonder then that a system which often copies other towns, adopts a paint by numbers approach and is fundamentally timid continues to hold sway.
But across the country there are places seeking to challenge this mindset and do things differently. And the model of change they are embracing is based on building broad local partnerships. Exactly the sort the government are funding in the 55 towns they have identified in the Long Term Plan for Towns policy.
In Wigan, for example, a partnership has formed in Ashton in Makerfield bringing together the local authority, business groups, faith groups, night time economy workers and others to shape plans to improve the town. Not only are they helping deliver traffic calming and re-routing HGVs, a new market square and food and flower markets, they are also creating a sense of ownership and an emerging vision.
This sense of local ownership is also strong over in the Yorkshire Dales, where the Upper Dales Community Partnership was established to protect rural services. Established by six Parish Councillors, it works in partnership with North Yorkshire Police Authority and North Yorkshire County Council. With 23 paid staff and around 40-60 local volunteers it now runs a post office, bus service, business units and the country’s only community owned petrol station.
Building wider partnerships also generates fresh thinking. In Glasgow, for example, social housing providers and GPs helped to stop Christmas celebrations being vandalised by decorating trees with bespoke baubles that paid tribute to people in the area who had lost their lives due to knife crime. This outside the box approach completely put a stop to vandalism and ensured local traders enjoyed a crime-free Christmas.
By working together, these broad-based partnerships are helping high streets find solutions to long-standing challenges and, most importantly, start developing visions for the kind of place they want to be. Without these, towns will not only find it hard to win the confidence of local people but also struggle to prepare for the future and adapt to changing needs.
And unless they do this, they will remain chained to a past that in a digital age is fast becoming irrelevant. Creating the right environment for change should be the single most important thing all towns are focussed on right now. For those high streets not busy being reborn will ultimately find it hard to escape irreversible decline.
And no Royal Commission or Long Term Plan will be able to save them.