Towns have always been at the heart of communities and regional economies. As centres of commerce, culture and connectivity, they have for centuries brought people together to live, work and play.
And they have always been in flux, adapting to change, seizing opportunities to reinvent themselves, or struggling to adapt to external forces like globalisation, migration and industrial decline.
The future of our town centres and High Streets has long been a topic of conversation, under threat from out of town and internet shopping, or dulled through homogenisation by carbon copy national retailers.
Reimagining town centres
Coronavirus has ruthlessly exposed some of these vulnerabilities. Accountancy firm KPMG says England’s high streets could lose up to 400,000 jobs as a result of more people working from home and internet shopping because of Covid.
And they think town centres will need to be reimagined as cultural and recreational hubs that can act as magnets for businesses and jobs, helping to transform less prosperous areas.
I agree. We need to accelerate our response to making our towns more resilient in order to prevent further decline and give them the shot in the arm they need. That’s why the LEP has been proud to be part of Cornwall’s town deal Boards in Penzance, St Ives, Camborne and Truro.
We’ve been working with each town since last year on four separate bids to the Government’s £3.6 billion Towns Fund, which aims to regenerate town centres, boost businesses and improve local infrastructure.
All four were submitted to Government this month with a combined request for £99 million of investment to leverage in a further £96m in match funding in order to transform the fortunes of those towns. That’s a total package of £195m.
Opportunity to reset
And those bids could not be timelier, not just because of the economic ravages of covid, but because of the opportunity the pandemic presents for us to reset many aspects of how we live, and respond in a really positive way.
Take traffic for example. The huge drop in traffic in our towns because of lockdown has given us a taste of what pedestrianised town centres could be like, including marked improvements to air quality and a big fall in carbon emissions.
It’s also boosted personal mobility with many more of us walking and cycling as part of our daily routine, which in turn has put a renewed focus on connectivity, health and wellbeing, and the importance of being outdoors.
Impact of homeworking
Homeworking also looks set to stay for those that have been able to do it. Employers have realised that staff can be just as productive, and in many cases even more so. And employees have learned that the work life balance needn’t involve five days in the office every week. This in turn is likely to impact on how office space is used in our towns.
The High Street will also look much different. There have been many high profile casualties like Arcadia Group and Debenhams that will leave gaping holes in many town centres. It’s no surprise that in the fourth quarter of 2020, online behemoth Amazon reported revenues in excess of $100 billion for the first time.
Internet shopping is here to stay, but could the decline in traditional retail be an opportunity to revitalise our town centres?
Doing things better
Coronavirus has also taught us what we miss and what we value. Whether it’s a pint down the pub, taking the kids to the cinema, visiting a museum or going to the theatre, we’ve craved leisure and entertainment, arts and culture. Aren’t these things we should be investing in?
These are among the many issues that the Town Deals are seeking to address. Many pre-date the pandemic or course, but coronavirus has I think brought a renewed urgency to tackle them and do things better.
Each of the Town Deals is different because they have been forged by local communities setting their own priorities and identifying projects for funding that can have the biggest impact on their town.
More town centre homes
There are several common themes. All of the towns want to bring more life back into their town centres with more residential space, by converting retail to residential or live/work homes, or building on brownfield sites to provide social and affordable housing.
The need for flexible and collaborative workspace and studios, like the £2 million LEP-funded CSpace project in Newquay, is another theme.
The towns are all planning for greener transport, with improved walking, cycling and public transport links, helping to address climate change and health and wellbeing, with more exercise and better air quality in more shared public spaces. Penzance plans a 70% reduction in town centre traffic; St Ives wants to pedestrianise Fore Street, which it did during the first lockdown.
Truro is looking to rediscover its waterfront, including a transformed harbour and Lemon Quay, with a new bridge across the Truro River downstream, connecting to new indoor and outdoor recreational spaces linked to a green transport network.
Similarly, Camborne wants to invest in a cycling network which will help address some of the town’s underlying health issues. The ‘Bay to Bay’ multi-use trail between St Ives and Penzance will contribute to a more sustainable tourism sector, in line with our own Local Industrial Strategy.
The experience economy
Arts, culture and heritage is another thread running through the Town Deals. Many propose investment in iconic buildings, expanding or repurposing them for community use, and in theatres, museums and galleries. The ‘experience economy’ is vital in revitalising towns, and accessing heritage and culture and will be a major part of the post Covid recovery, economically and mentally.
St Ives, which simultaneously has some of the most deprived and least deprived electoral wards in England, and half its town centre housing stock given over to holiday or second homes, has big plans to leverage its world-class culture and environment for residents as well as visitors.
Building on strengths
The Palais de Danse, once home to Barbara Hepworth’s studio, will become a high quality digitally enabled hub for training and skills. The local theatre will be regenerated, the Guildhall renewed, Leach Pottery expanded, and the rugby club remodelled for community sports facilities and affordable housing. There are also plans to increase local sourcing into the town’s huge hospitality industry.
Meanwhile Penzance will harness its marine and creative industries with investment in harbour facilities, marine skills and museums and galleries, and a delegated enterprise grants scheme to back local businesses.
Fibre Park for Camborne
Camborne, once the beating industrial heart of Cornwall, aims to replace the heavy engineering of yesteryear with the software engineering of tomorrow. A ‘Fibre Park’ led by local tech company Headforwards wants to bring wealth back to the town with new high-tech workspace that will build on a growing cluster of digital businesses and deliver data at a mind blowing 400 gigabits per second.
The LEP has worked with each of the Town Deal Boards in pulling these plans together and fully supports the four bids that have been made to Government. They align with our own priorities to create quality jobs, tackle low wages and social exclusion, and complement our own town centre investments like the transformation of Liskeard cattle market and the Hall for Cornwall.
The Towns Fund is a competitive bidding process, so we don’t yet know how much of the £99m Cornwall has asked for will be awarded, nor when. But we are clear that any investment should not be seen a replacement for the much higher levels of Government funding we have been promised to offset the loss of EU funding because of Brexit. Town Deals are a start, but not the end.