Spotlight on policy and practice in small towns

Times are tough for small towns but our evidence shows that innovative ideas are helping them to thrive, says Chris Wade

This is a positive article – so first I will assuage readers who may be critical of my optimism with an acknowledgement: town centres, neighbourhoods and high streets are under enormous strain.

We all know that they face challenges like the loss of variety and closure of shops; increasing centralisation of health services, causing access problems for an ageing population; inflated housing prices driving young people out of the towns where they were brought up; the decline of traditional industries; and the pull of jobs in cities, which means that many towns are becoming dormitories for their bigger neighbours.

But it’s not all gloom and doom. Towns have many positive points – they are popular places to live with cohesive communities. They are good places to start businesses. Thousands of projects have already been developed through local initiative, most often led by town partnerships of businesses, community organisations, local councils and individual volunteers.

And towns have a champion – sharing innovative ideas and case studies of what towns can do to survive and to thrive, helping them navigate the latest government policies, subsidising training courses, and representing them to MPs and policymakers. That champion is Action for Market Towns (AMT), a national charity which provides our member towns (and cities), local authorities and others with case studies, tools to improve their towns, policy advice and national representation.

AMT’s mission is more critical now than ever before. Our role is to help nurture the spirit of self-reliance that is so evident within towns and neighbourhoods and to share good practice between them.  Communities are coming up with ingenious solutions to make their towns and neighbourhoods vibrant. Over the next two pages I will look at how policy can support this – and some great ideas and funding solutions.

But communities need governmental and policy support. Over the last month, I have been lucky to attend four inspirational events looking at the future of town centres in England, Wales and Scotland. It has been fascinating to compare and contrast the similarities and differences in approaches and policies in the three countries.

It is helpful to frame these events with an understanding of the scope of potential interventions using analysis conducted last year by AMT with the Centre for Regeneration Excellence Wales (CREW) about the focus of town centre recommendations, for England and Wales respectively, in the Portas Review on the Future of Our High Streets and Welsh Assembly Report on Regeneration of Town Centres.

This showed a split between actions that could be led locally by communities, businesses and councils; and policy development that needs a national steer.

The analysis also identified shortcomings in both reports with neither overtly looking beyond retail to multi-functional town centres or showing recognition of the need to understand the inter-relationships between neighbouring towns, or systemic changes in the wider economy.

One year on, with a focus on the link between policy and its application in practice, I found:

Read the above commentaries and come to your own conclusions about the differences in policy approaches.

Moving on to town teams and the difference that ‘town team partners’ and locally led partnerships are likely to be able to make, there are already lots of examples of small towns and neighbourhoods using innovative ideas to stimulate activity, help their local shops, provide new opportunities for their communities, and become multifunctional social centres. Here are just a few:

In 2009 Holyhead had the highest vacancy rate of any town centre in the UK – with 39% of premises empty.

The main shopping area of the town centre had been hit hard by out of town retail parks, large scale job losses locally and general economic decline.

Not content to see the town centre deteriorate further, the Plas Cybi Partnership, a community-owned regeneration organisation, decided to do something about the empty shops. Their project is covered in more detail here.

The results of Wilmslow’s Town Benchmarking Survey carried out in 2010/2011 showed that despite the perceived affluence of the town, like many other towns in the UK it was suffering at the hands of out-of-town shopping centres (Trafford Centre & Handforth Dean), internet shopping and parking charges.

The report also highlighted that Wilmslow has a low proportion of independent retailers and that the average length of stay for the Wilmslow shopper was just 20 minutes, with an average footfall of just 104.

The artisan market was created to address the decline in the town centre by adding vibrancy to the town and vastly increasing footfall to the high street – which it has admirably achieved. More here.

Top down, large government funding programmes for town and neighbourhood improvement schemes are in short supply. Those that do exist, such as the Portas Pilot scheme, have been hugely oversubscribed. Funding for ‘town team partners’ is welcomed – but £10,000 won’t go too far. And other schemes such as the ‘High Street X Fund’ have been criticised for turning town regeneration into a reality TV style approach. Towns can commit enormous amounts of time to writing funding bids with no certainty of the result.

But towns can improve their funding success rate by capturing accurate and independent evidence of their strengths and weaknesses. AMT’s Town Benchmarking system allows towns to do just that – and is a highly affordable means for towns to measure their performance against a range of KPIs and compare this to other towns of a similar type. Towns have used their benchmarking reports to track progress, implement appropriate projects, and as evidence for successful funding bids.

And meanwhile a new breed of alternative financing is emerging. Crowdfunding, community share issues, community development finance and alternative, ethical financial institutions can all be used to fund and finance towns’ plans for improvement. Many towns have successfully used these kind of schemes already. A forthcoming conference, TownFunder, will help towns, cities and neighbourhoods to understand how new and alternative funding methods can work for them.

So towns and neighbourhoods aren’t sitting back. The evidence of Action for Market Towns’ 450+ members across the UK shows that innovative ideas are helping many to thrive. I’m quietly confident that 2013 will see the innovation that is alive and well in our small towns translate into more success stories of towns and neighbourhoods bringing their plans to fruition.

Chris Wade
Chris Wade is chief executive of Action for Market Towns (AMT)


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