New report identifies fresh hope and opportunity for England’s northern towns

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A new report that lifts the lid on the current state of England’s northern towns and spotlights the funding streams driving regeneration, has been published by national planning and development consultancy, Lichfields.

The ‘Moving on up? Levelling-up town centres across Northern England’ Insight report comes at a time of ‘seismic’ change for the UK towns. The last 12 months have been challenging times, the report says, as pandemic and lockdowns have swept the country. This has had a huge impact on retail operations as working patterns have changed and social distancing measures have become the norm for millions of people.

Retailers continue to face significant challenges, notably the growth in online retail, competition from out-of-town shopping centres, the burden of disproportionate business rates, and changing consumer habits.

An estimated 11,000 retail and leisure units vanished from our town centres during 2020, plunging the high street into ‘crisis’, including more than 9,000 units belonging to many high-profile brands such as Debenhams and Arcadia’s Top Shop and Burtons stores.

The report spotlights how towns are responding and fighting back to meet the challenges, with encouraging signs of early success already evident.

While Covid 19 has been a ‘game changer’ for the retail sector, many town centres have been repositioning themselves over the last decade, drawing on initiatives designed to provide people with more food and beverage and leisure-based offers to tackle the rise of online shopping.

The planning and development consultancy analysed over 100 funding bids, identifying important themes in the report that local authorities, planners and policy makers see as drivers of town centre regeneration and repurposing. This proactive approach is reflected in a package of funding streams that have seen a great deal of uptake across the north of England, says Lichfields.

The £830m Future High Streets Funds is helping to deliver transformative change to struggling high streets, while the £3.6bn Towns Fund is seeing cities, towns and local areas bringing forward imaginative proposals for economic growth. A third stream – High Street Heritage Action Zones – seeks to fuel economic, social and cultural recovery by regenerating historic town centre areas.

The report also identifies six themes that are underpinning strategies to transform towns and pull in more people. Relocating health and well-being facilities closer to transport hubs generates much-needed footfall while more town centre-based education facilities create jobs, inject fresh life into vacant buildings and stimulate growth.

New tourism and heritage plans are also being developed to attract visitors keen to see the rich and diverse history of northern places, pumping millions of pounds in local economies. Funding the development of space to accommodate new digital and creative industries and repurposing retail space as affordable and attractive living is seen as critical to the future vibrancy and culture of towns. The report says ‘…maintaining a meaningful 24-hours population in town centres will…drive demand for services and facilities, which contribute to the vitality of the centres’.

It looks in depth at three northern towns – Bishop Auckland in County Durham; Warrington in the North West; and Yorkshire’s Stocksbridge – to examine how they are fighting back and looking to a brighter future thanks to investment funding.

More than £33m of funding has been awarded to Bishop Auckland to support a heritage-based strategy already having a positive impact – the Kynren attraction pulled in over 100,000 visitors in its first year alone, boosting the local economy by £4.5m. Warrington town centre will see 8,000 homes developed as part of a master plan to create a new sense of place, boost footfall and open new leisure opportunities as retailing shifts online.

A Town Investment Plan (TIP) is part of a £24m funding package for Stocksbridge to support long-term sustainable growth through training, education and employment opportunities for local people and attract new visitors to the town.

Jonathan Wallace, director at Lichfields Newcastle office and the report’s lead author, said: “This is an important publication and comes at a time of seismic change for thousands of struggling town centres.

“However, there are many positives on the horizon and our research points to a strong, vibrant and successful future for those northern towns that take advantage of the funding streams and pursue exciting and innovative strategies designed to transform the heart and soul of our high streets.”

Founded in 1962, Lichfields offers a range of planning services including economics, heritage, sustainability, and GIS. Its clients include local authorities and government bodies, as well as developers, landowners and operators in the housing, retail, leisure, commercial, waste and recycling and infrastructure sectors.

A copy of the ‘Moving on up? Levelling up town centres across Northern England’ report is available at https://lichfields.uk/media/6467/moving-on-up_levelling-up-town-centres-across-northern-england.pdf

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