Council assets can rejuvenate town centres

Neil McInroy

Some of our towns and town centres are in a sorry state.  However, to date, the importance of local authority assets, including buildings, parks and open spaces, sporting arts and cultural venues have been overlooked.

In a new report – The role and value of local authority assets in town centresthe Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES), and the Association of Public Service Excellence (APSE) have detailed the important role that the total of £250bn of council assets play in our town, district and city centres.

There has been significant focus on the problems of our towns and town centres (including the high street reviews of Grimsey and Portas reviews and the wider-focussed Scottish Town Centre Review).

CLES has long argued over the follies of an overemphasis on the high street, and the singularity of focus on retail as a solution, rather than exploring the wider social and public and functions within our towns.  Even if you just look at the lexicon in the Portas Review, this narrowness is revealed.  Retail or retailer is mentioned 368 times, whilst local government/local authority or local council just 16 times.  Shop/shopping 81 times, but culture twice.  Our town centres are places for citizens not just shoppers.

This new report argues that the way to solve the problems facing town centres is to think about all social, public and commercial functions and how they interrelate.  It also details the range of roles that local authority assets play in our towns, district centres and in our high streets including:

  • Strategic roles: As sites by which shared services with other public bodies are provided and where citizens go to meet.  As such they play a role in increasing town centre footfall
  • Place roles: Nurturing and building place identity, through providing and maintaining heritage sites, galleries and buildings of architectural significance.
  • Economic roles: As hubs for business, enablers of investment and as income generators
  • Social roles as cultural venues: Promoting new forms of ownership and co-production, as venues for voluntary and community sectors and as spaces for meanwhile use.
  • Environmental roles: Providing sites for solar panels and wind generation.

The research work also systematically unpicks the benefits by providing a matrix, which develops a handy set of indicators of asset based values.  We also recommend that councils should use this matrix as a basis to develop a comprehensive register of assets, detailing both their value and also their wider economic benefits – such as contribution to town centre jobs and footfall.

Through a survey, as well as case studies in four council areas across the UK (Ballymena, West Dumbartonshire, Southampton and Neath Port Talbot), we show that:

  • Council-owned premises, arts and cultural venues in Ballymena have contributed to a 12% increase in tourist trips in two years.
  • Staff from the Neath Port Talbot county borough council’s civic centre spend £4.4m in the town centre annually
  • Every £1 spent on public realm improvements by Southampton city council has prompted £5 investment. Also 1,200 jobs have been created as a result.
  • In West Dumbartonshire, the potential relocation of civic facilities is driving  town centre regeneration plans.  Local authority assets are being used to help develop residents’ skills and employability.

In this work, there is also a very important point about local authorities generally.  As institutions, they are faced with hellish cuts and are under pressure from central government to divest and sell off many of these assets.  This sell-off means that citizens will have a less accountability over these publicly-owned assets, which at present are owned and operated for the benefit of all.  So, instead of the short-sighted selling off of buildings and land that give town centres a focal point, attract visitors and prompt investment, it makes better financial sense to ensure these can achieve their full potential.

With the ongoing decline of retail a probability, we need to look at other functions and maximize the potential of what we have.  Local authority assets are key economic and social drivers, as well as sites of citizenship and local identity.  They are and should remain key to the future of our town centres.

  • Complimentary copies of the report are available to CLES and New Start members.  For more information click here or contact Laura Symonds.

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Neil McInroy

Neil McInroy

Neil McInroy is chief executive of the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES)

3 Comments

  • Paulie

    Well, it’s hardly news is it? Look at any local authority plan for the town centre and you’ll realise council’s never have a myopic view of their town and city centres. The choice however shouldn’t be a binary one which pits local authority/public provided services against private / third sector ownership/provision. There has to be a genuine partnership to allow services to continue. Underpinning all this for me is wholesale reform of local government and the role/status of representative democracy. Let’s have a reinvigoration of enabling municipal authorities with their own funding basis, based on sensible functional economic geographies with their much more freedom. Generally though the article makes a fair point about the narrowness of the fairly useless Portas review even if the rest of it is basically telling local authorities how to suck eggs.

  • Neil McInroy

    Neil McInroy

    Thanks for commenting Paulie,
    You are right. We should be reinvigorating and ‘enabling municipal authorities with their own funding basis, based on sensible functional economic geographies with their much more freedom’. But the point we are trying to make is that the gnashing of teeth around town centres and the high streets, and the resultant policy emphasis, has hitherto neglected of one of the most important things which are there and which there is some local control over – namely local authority assets. Whilst at the same time we are seeing almost a fire sale of many LA goodies, as cash strapped councils try to make ends meet.

  • jeni pollard

    Totally agree – at the end of the day councils own assets as custodians on behalf of the community. The use of these assets in leveraging positive economic and social benefit to the community is an imperative. The over emphasis on retail as the driver for economic activity is past its use by date.

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