A Vision is not something which can be copied and pasted – it is built through experience and understanding of community, place, and people – it is time we acknowledged that the common denominator is process, not product.
The property industry is consistently encouraged to claim that it has the solution – that with ‘a pinch of this’ and ‘a spoonful of that’ we can solve challenges facing the high street and beyond. The trouble with this approach is that it often assumes that “one size fits all”. Certainly, there are distinctions between towns, cities, and villages. But beyond that it is often expected that the nuances of design and aesthetics will paste over the cracks where a universal square peg has been shoehorned into a local round hole. These solutions may work for a time, but they run the serious risk of creating homogenised high streets and towns with little to no bespoke identity.
As the Grimsey Review: ‘Covid-19 supplement for town centres’ attests, the challenges facing the high street “cannot be solved by pulling big levers in Whitehall”.
What is needed is a de-mystified strategy which empowers local authorities to define their differences and understand the process of creating solutions that enhance their unique selling points. For years, we have used phrases such as ‘destination space’, ‘the experiential high street’ and ‘lower-rates, more support’ like a pin-ball machine – bouncing from one to the next in the vain hope that we will eventually hit the jackpot. But, as the recent Local Government Association (LGA) report ‘Building more inclusive economies’ suggests, ‘local areas cannot build an inclusive economy effectively if they do not know precisely what their problems and their assets are.’ In other words, we will never know what fits until we find the gaps.
Welsh towns and communities are of course unique places with their own distinctive sense of place, and their own set of issues. The Sky News’ article ‘Coronavirus: The towns most economically at risk from coronavirus pandemic’, references research conducted by the Centre For Towns and the University of Southampton. It looks at social and economic wellbeing, isolation and demographic profiles within UK towns and establishes a ‘risk ranking’. The article states that coastal and post-industrial towns will suffer the most, making Wales particularly vulnerable with 43% of Welsh towns deemed most at-risk economically – this must be addressed.
Future Generations Commissioner, Sophie Howe, believes that Wales should introduce 20-minute towns and cities to improve health, boost the economy and support communities in lockdown. The concept gives people the ability to ‘live locally’, with most of their everyday needs met within a 20-minute walk of home. ‘Localism’ is a term we must embrace; one which acknowledges individual personalities, challenges and selling points of towns. City-centre focus is drawn from a similar approach, focussing on neighbourhoods and community-scale developments which are deliverable, rather than blue-sky visions that talk the talk but cannot walk the walk.
This was the rationale behind the #bettertowns roadmap, a collaboration between HLM Architects, Didobi, realestateworks and the Consumer Data Research Centre, which champions a highly visual, data and evidence-led process, navigating five stages to determine short, medium, and long-term strategies for individual towns. Each town’s journey starts by creating a baseline, defining a mission, appraising options, creating an action plan, and delivering outcomes. The methodology is universal, but the solution is unique.
As advocated in the 2019 Local Government Association campaign, #CouncilsCan, the key role is for the authority itself, providing them with the road and guidance but placing them in the driver’s seat. They determine what stage they are currently at, how fast they want to travel and what their critical success factors are; we provide the expertise and advice to achieve these goals. Welsh Government can offer financial aid through its ‘Transforming Towns: support to improve town centres’ initiative.
But the local authorities must be the protagonist if we are to achieve the successful re-vitalisation of our towns. It is the only body able to understand individual communities, challenges, and opportunities thoroughly. And yet, it is not enough to possess that knowledge. To succeed, the knowledge must be consolidated and translated into a universal language – an annual #BigtownAudit creating a responsive, accessible data warehouse. Armed with this information, central Government could act with conviction, removing barriers based on evidence and clearing the way for local authorities to act in the best interests of their communities.
It is time to debunk the myth of a collective destination – it is neither desirable nor achievable. Creating a universal, multi-disciplinary sat-nav is the way forwards, enabling local authorities to plug in their co-ordinates and move towards their own #bettertown with confidence.