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GBSLEP Board Director, Simon Marks comments on towns and local centres

Even prior to the outbreak of covid-19 and the restrictions that followed, the UK’s high streets were already experiencing a difficult period and we must face the truth that in order to emerge in any meaningful way from the current crisis many will have to adopt an altogether different model.

Reflecting on the extremely challenging circumstances our towns and local centres now face, I remain hopeful that the need to reshape the traditional high street environment will ultimately bring significant benefits for both businesses and residents in the longer-term. We were already reimagining our town centres before covid-19 and planning for a new mix of uses, however post covid-19 recovery planning necessitates the need to re-think again the uses of our town centres going forward, to ensure their ongoing prosperity and fit with our new world.

Towns and local centres are a crucial part of the economic and social success of the GBSLEP area, and indeed the whole of the UK. It is vital they are supported through this period and enabled to thrive in the future. No doubt there will be very difficult months ahead.

There are many challenges to consider; town centres represent one of the most fragmented large-scale real estate assets when it comes to both ownership and layout. True asset values will be low whilst these spaces offer little potential to generate income, and this could offer a substantial opportunity for intervention and asset assembly. The challenge is book asset values are unlikely to be written down to avoid investors crystallising losses – how do we turn this challenge into the opportunity it should be?

If we could redraw our town centres, what would bring us the greatest opportunity for income generation while maximising the space on offer?

Returning retail and leisure operators could be centralised around the core or hub of the town centre, defined in terms of the strengths and concentrations of existing transport infrastructure. This in turn would free-up outer-lying assets which could introduce new uses to the environment, unlocking commercial, cultural and residential, opportunities.

Evidence suggests it takes six weeks to make or break a habit and many of us who are working from home have found it to be more productive, more flexible and ultimately more balanced and family friendly as we gain new time that would have previously been spent commuting.

It is entirely likely that we could see a shift in perception towards the concept of working from home. Or perhaps working from a more local, public, flexible touchdown space could be preferable. Somewhere you can buy a sandwich and cup of coffee… just like a town centre I hear you say! A model may become apparent where working from home or your local town centre more regularly becomes the new expectation and trips to the city are reserved for larger meetings and headquarters-type operations. This could lead to the delivery of a smaller, denser city centre office core and this could offer city centres new opportunities – dovetailing with some of the anticipated longer-term impacts that the covid-19 outbreak will have on working practices.

This new way of working could generate significant positive impacts for the environment, as well as wellbeing and mental health (I imagine most of us have had a miserable experience crammed together on a busy train route), and for our physical health; removing the need to commute frees up opportunities to use that time for physical activity, going for a walk, a bike ride or to the gym.

There are of course many other proposed models to consider – such as a swing towards ever-denser urban centres which are more sustainable– and it will certainly be interesting to see how our thinking adapts to our changing needs over time.

Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership (GBSLEP) recently published its ‘Growing our Towns’ report, developed in partnership with 10 of our towns, to provide guidance on how investment in towns and local centres could be made in the future. It is hoped that the report can be utilised to enable effective planning for the end of the current restrictions and beyond. The report builds on the 2019 Towns and Local Centres Framework to provide a series of recommendations based on clear evidence about strengths, challenges and opportunities for the future prosperity of towns in the city-region.

We are all working and living very differently now than we were even just 20 years ago. This may be a timely opportunity for us to take stock of our town centres, consider our future requirements and ultimately ensure that these places, so vital to the fabric of our economic success, are ready to face our evolving needs.