In recent years, the landscape of town centre regeneration in the UK, particularly in the North East, has faced various challenges and opportunities. Over the course of the last two years specifically, the UK government’s levelling-up agenda, and its potential impact on local communities and the regeneration of town centres, has been front of mind for many.

Insiyah Khushnood

Insiyah Khushnood

The principal questions have been how to make the process and concept of regeneration work for some of the country’s most neglected towns and cities and whether the UK government is doing enough to revitalise places in the north.

It’s no secret to those working within the development world that regeneration efforts in the UK can often be fragmented and sluggish. A lack of a comprehensive strategy has led to patchy progress, with some areas benefiting more than others.

As the government’s 2022 Levelling Up White Paper highlights – geographic disparities stem from market forces, which tend to attract investments where returns are perceived to be the highest. This pattern results in a cycle of disinvestment, leading to deprivation and vacant buildings – ultimately attracting opportunistic investors who may not prioritise creating healthy, sustainable communities.

This pattern is evident in the North East – and in order to accurately ascertain the needs of a town, it’s essential to acknowledge that successful regeneration requires a strategic, holistic approach, as well as a passion for creating impact that feels vocational.

Regeneration has always been about so much more than simply reviving physical structures. It’s about rejuvenating communities and creating a lasting impact. To achieve this, projects must begin with a strategic vision that encompasses economic growth and social wellbeing.

However, there are numerous challenges to overcome when trying to put together a strategic vision, especially when faced with some of the objectives of the levelling-up agenda. One of the most significant hurdles is the issue of viability and funding.

Many projects in the North East involve working on brownfield land, which often carries contamination from previous industrial use. These sites are more challenging to work with and often require substantial funding for restoration. The real challenge here is finding developers that are willing to take real pride in tackling these difficult projects, and boldly go to areas where many others may shy away from regenerating.

Another key issue is the disproportionate allocation of funding given to the North East, compared with other regions. To truly level the playing field, it’s crucial that resources are distributed more equitably to support regeneration initiatives in the regions.

A huge success factor of town centre regeneration projects hinges on the delicate balance between economic growth and social value. It’s simply not enough anymore to just adhere to building regulations and meet government targets. This attitude now feels like a ‘box tick’ and can fall dangerously short of creating truly flourishing communities. To achieve effectual regeneration, the essence of a place and its unique characteristics must be understood. Developers must also be willing to try more creative ways to weave these historical elements into every project as standard – not as a ‘nice to have’.

Collaboration between the public and private sectors is the most important linchpin for successful regeneration. The most successful, sustainable and impactful developments are created when the two come together in a partnership. This creates a brilliant synergy of skills and expertise, with both sides of the coin acting as a sounding board for the other, able to translate ideas into actionable plans.

As well as collaboration, the reusing of existing assets in town centres is an essential strategy for attracting people back and stimulating economic growth. The importance of bringing old buildings back to life while retaining their historical and architectural significance can never be understated. Derelict sites can be transformed into vibrant, purposeful spaces, breathing new life into forgotten areas.

To ensure an equitable distribution of resources for town centre regeneration, a place-based approach is needed. Local government must lead the charge, working collaboratively with the private sector to craft a shared vision and ensure the fair dispensation of key funding.

The future of town centre regeneration in the UK holds immense promise. While prioritising both economic growth and social value, there is the opportunity to create vibrant, sustainable communities that stand the test of time.

In terms of levelling up, what really needs to be top of the agenda is a focus on creating communities that are built with sustainable design and functionality for the future in mind, while also preserving the essence of each place.

Town centre regeneration transcends the realm of bricks and mortar. It encompasses people and the close-knit communities to which they belong. It is only through fostering collaboration, allocating resources judiciously and embracing innovative approaches that the good work can continue to make a profound and lasting impact – not only in the North East but across the entire nation.

Together, public and private sectors possess the power to truly level up towns, transforming them into thriving, sustainable hubs of opportunity and prosperity for generations to come.

Insiyah Khushnood is senior development manager at igloo Regeneration