Karle Burford 25 June 2019

How councils can transform neglected town centres

Addressing the issue of neglected town centres is high on the government’s agenda, as changes in retail habits and economic uncertainty continue to compound the problem for many troubled areas. This has been reflected by a number of policy developments and structural funding changes announced in recent years, which aim to provide local authorities with the tools they need to transform these ailing centres.

The Stronger Towns Fund and the removal of the cap on borrowing from the Housing Revenue Account (HRA) represent the two most significant changes to legislation. The Stronger Towns Fund pledges £1.6bn to deprived towns across the country, while the removal of the borrowing cap from the Housing Revenue Account means that local authorities now have access to funds at competitive rates that are not available to the private sector.

This means that local authorities are now in a uniquely strong position to help unlock the potential of land that had previously been unviable for regeneration. By gaining access to funds at rates unavailable to the private sector, local authorities can transform problem sites that may not be commercially viable for private developers alone. This could include sites that require the removal of challenging transport infrastructure or demand prohibitively expensive groundwork to prepare the area for development.

This offers the opportunity for collaboration between the public sector and the private sector as local authorities work with private developers to maximise the positive impact of regeneration.

An example of this trend in action is the London Borough of Havering’s £1bn joint venture with Wates Residential to regenerate 12 existing council estates. AHR was on the selection panel and assisted the London Borough of Havering with architectural and masterplanning critique during the process.

The scheme will see the council’s current stock of 966 homes replaced by 3,112 new homes of mixed tenure, increasing council rented accommodation in the area by 70%. It will also double the amount of affordable housing across the 12 estates, demonstrating the potential these partnerships can hold.

By combining the expertise of those in the private sector and the public sector, local authorities place themselves in a position to maximise the success of regeneration. Combining the public sector’s knowledge of the community and its needs, and the private sector’s ability to turn this into an effective vision through their expertise in delivery and the design process.

However, in order to gain a successful outcome from these partnerships, it is crucial to ensure that the vision and values of the organisations within the joint venture are aligned. It’s in this context that working with private sector stakeholders that also understand the needs of a community is key.

We understand the different drivers for all parties and work to bring together a team with a shared drive to create better communities. This process is informed by our understanding of the key stakeholders involved, and the varied and complex elements which go into building a desirable and futureproof community.

Taking a long-term view

A considered strategic masterplan and vision for an area is vital to creating a scheme that serves the needs of its community. In developing this masterplan, local authorities must work with private sector experts such as architects to take a long-term view - this ensures the delivery of a futureproof new development that is well-connected to existing transport nodes and maximises the potential of its site.

It’s imperative to study the opportunities that are presented by existing infrastructure, the remaining buildings in the area, and the possibility for land swaps during this process. Considering the existing context that surrounds a scheme ensures that it is well connected and means that the opportunity for building retention can be explored, benefits of this could be improved financial viability of the scheme.

Another key consideration is maintaining a flexible approach to design to cater for future demands. This could involve incorporating flexible floorplates into the design of a scheme, which can be quickly repurposed to accommodate different uses. This is also demonstrated by the recent increase in buildings occupied by small pop-ups prior to completion. This provides the opportunity for developers to think creatively about how a space will be used and assess its initial performance. This approach has proven to be a valuable tactic to understanding the needs of local communities, but it requires a long-term approach, and a phased approach to development.

Phased development can also benefit clients such as hotel operators, who may need a section of the masterplan tailored to their requirements. Beginning construction on other areas of a scheme prior to this confirmation can allow the leeway needed to agree a deal, without committing to the design for the site they have chosen.

Creating a vibrant community

When working with architects to design large-scale regeneration schemes, the key to success is putting placemaking at the heart of design. There are a number of factors that contribute to creating a sense of place. In our experience the key elements are a mixed-use approach, high quality design and generous public realm.

It’s no longer the case that town centres require a regimented separation of different uses. It’s now far more common that the most successful places combine retail, commercial, residential, leisure and community space, this diverse offering makes schemes more attractive to the local community and can also assist in weathering economic uncertainty that may impact certain industries.

For example, the retail sector has transformed significantly in recent years and our high streets are at the forefront of these changes. Local authorities need to be receptive to these market trends if they want to plan for economic prosperity over the long term.

An example of this approach in action is the regeneration of Manor Street in Braintree, Essex. This AHR designed scheme recently received planning permission and incorporates 35 residential units, a 70-bed hotel, healthcare facility, café/restaurant, bus interchange, two-storey car park and enhanced public realm. By combining these offerings into one centralised destination, the development ensures that the town centre is fit for purpose and can provide for the community in the future.

Beyond ensuring a mixed-use approach, public realm has a major role to play in ensuring success. The design process must not only include a generous allocation of high-quality public space, but also ensure that it is effectively connected to the existing environment and designed with longevity in mind. Placing pedestrians at the heart of any design considerations is also vital and helps to ensure that the public realm incorporated is popular with the community.

An attractive environment that is accessible by the public is significant in maintaining the health and wellbeing of the people that will live and work in this new space. It also increases civic pride and creates an environment that the community wants to take ownership of, and engage with, which will inevitably generate footfall.

Keynsham Civic Centre and Library & Information Service placed this consideration at the heart of its design, while providing a mixed-use offering driven by a requirement for 68,000 sq ft of council offices. By maximising active frontages, adding outside seating and creating well-connected public space in a new central square, the scheme provides a new municipal hub for the town. The square has been used by the community for events and plays host to a local market – showcasing the impact that attractive public space can have on an area.

The next phase of the scheme in Keynsham at Riverside is now underway and involves the transformation of council offices into a vibrant area for the community, including new housing and upgraded leisure facilities. The redevelopment ensures connectivity with the local town whilst embracing is surroundings of green space, creating more than just a place to live and demonstrating the knock-on effect these benefits can have.

Turning away from earlier trends in urban design is vital in the redevelopment of our town centres. This prevents the creation of car-centric environments that are hostile to pedestrians. By avoiding this and instead opting for green spaces, attractive design, and well-connected streets local authorities can create a place that residents are proud of. The AHR designed regeneration scheme in Kings Quarter, Gloucester is another example of how opting for a mixed-use development can help rejuvenate the area and create a sense of place, re-imaging the environment to meet the current drivers of the town.

Rethinking town centres

By working with ambitious private sector partners, there’s an opportunity for local authorities to rethink the way that town centres are designed. Meaningful partnerships offer the opportunity to create futureproof town centres that engage with their surroundings, incorporate attractive public space and form the basis of dynamic and thriving new communities.

It’s vital that local authorities engage with the experts in their field, to build new community hubs that Britain’s regional towns can be proud of.

Karle Burford is director at national architecture and building consultancy AHR

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