We are all focused on a cautious return from lockdown and establishing the ‘new normal’. As recession looms, we should divert our attention to the wider economic impact on our regional towns and cities.
UK town centres are in crisis. Our failing high streets need investment to rejuvenate them. Without publicly funded intervention to aid the necessary transformation, many will fall into irreversible decline.
Lockdown has expedited the government’s wish to fund large-scale infrastructure projects nationwide. Local authorities have been left reeling by the devastating impact of Covid-19 on their services, revenue budgets and human resources. Will funds be directed to our regional centres in a meaningful way?
Queensberry has never been asked so often, in such short succession, by so many local authorities to provide guidance and detailed road mapping to help them rethink and deliver local regeneration programmes as landowners and enablers.
The repurposing of defunct urban centres was already key to the next phase of the UK’s regional economic growth plan (otherwise known as devolution – remember that?), but now it has become the Holy Grail.
Unprecedented levels of funds are rightly going to health, social services and post-Covid-19 business support programmes. Government must now step in to support local authorities in gap funding their development plans – this needs to be provided at scale and, crucially, at speed.
But I am increasingly concerned by the growing lobby to prevent or restrict local authority access to funding streams, such as the Public Works Loan Board (PWLB), which will be to the detriment of those utilising these finance models to regenerate town centres.
It has long been clear that the traditional private-sector development and funding model does not work for the majority of our towns and cities. There is too much inherent risk for returns that are too low. Without publicly funded intervention, private development will simply come to a stop.
It is not just the pause in investment but the length of that pause that will be catastrophic for town centres. In the majority of cases, the need for public-sector intervention has been painfully evident for over a decade. Without significant government support in this post-Covid environment, these locations will stagnate for another decade. This is a generational issue and not a simple snapshot in time; some communities will only ever experience their urban centres in economic decline during their lifetime.
Just when it may feel like we should apply the brakes, we must accelerate out of the curve instead and pump-prime the urban agenda.
Funding true regeneration through the PWLB is not about creating indebtedness. Well-advised councils that are proactive in driving urban regeneration are creating new and robust future revenue streams. The halo effect of local authority-led regeneration in stimulating wider investment is now apparent.
Once confidence in a location has been established, refreshed tenant demand attracts further investment across multiple sectors. Initial phases of local authority-led development can also be sold to private investors for a capital receipt to pay down borrowing levels.
The good news is that in a post-Covid world, regional towns and cities will possibly be more appealing. Many offer a smaller scale, ease of access, a sense of community, independent traders, street markets, access to open spaces and nearby rural escapes.
The need for funding to boost regeneration is now crucial if we want to create genuine societal, economic and employment opportunities – and a built environment worthy of our children’s future.
Paul Sargent is the founder and chief executive of Queensberry