New report highlights fresh hope and opportunity for North West towns

Katie Howarth

A new report from a North West planning and development consultancy lifts the lid on the state of the region’s town centres and funding driving regeneration and job creation.

The ‘Moving on up? Levelling up town centres across Northern England’ Insight report by Manchester firm Lichfields, comes at a time of ‘seismic’ change for local cities and towns.

The past 12 months have been challenging for local towns, the report indicates, as pandemic and lockdowns have had a huge impact on communities as working patterns have changed and social distancing measures continue to affect millions of people.

High street retailers also face significant challenges, notably the growth in online shopping, competition from out-of-town developments, the burden of disproportionate business rates, and changing consumer habits.

The report identifies how places such as Warrington are fighting back to meet the challenges and benefiting from a multimillion-pound national funding package.

The town has been confirmed as the recipient of a £22m Town Deal from the Government and has an ambitious 20-year strategy that puts city centre living at the heart of investment and growth. This could see 8,000 homes developed in its centre as part of a masterplan to open up new leisure opportunities as retail shifts online and drive visitor footfall.

Across the North West, the approved Church Wharf development in Bolton and the fresh proposals for the Galleries in Wigan will also see a shift in focus from retail and provide new residential and leisure uses in an enhanced public realm setting.

Several revenue streams, including the £830m Future High Streets Funds, are highlighted as contributing towards delivering transformative change to struggling high streets and helping to fuel economic, social and cultural recovery by regenerating historic town centre areas.

More than £460m has been confirmed from the Government’s Towns Fund and Future High Streets Fund for the region, along with £180m from the Future High Streets Fund and in excess of £280m through the Towns Fund. This has seen Blackpool secure £39.5m and Southport £37.5m. The Heritage Action Zones have contributed a further £16.75m of heritage specific funding across the region.

The report identifies six themes that are underpinning strategies to transform towns and pull in more people. Relocating health and wellbeing facilities closer to transport hubs generates much-needed footfall while more town centre based education facilities create jobs, inject fresh life into vacant buildings and stimulate growth.

New tourism and heritage plans are also being developed to attract visitors keen to see the rich and diverse history of northern places, pumping millions of pounds in local economies.

Funding the development of space to accommodate new digital and creative industries and repurposing retail space as affordable and attractive living is seen as critical to the future vibrancy and culture of towns.

The report says: “Maintaining a meaningful 24-hours population in town centres will … drive demand for services and facilities, which contribute to the vitality of the centres.”

As part of its research, the consultancy analysed more than 100 funding bids, identifying important themes in the report that local authorities, planners and policy makers see as drivers of town centre regeneration and repurposing. This proactive approach is reflected in a package of funding streams that have seen a great deal of uptake across the north of England, says Lichfields.

Katie Howarth, associate director at Lichfields’ Manchester office, said: “The challenges faced by town centres are well documented and there is no doubt they have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“However, our research has found that many northern towns are pursuing innovative strategies and taking advantage of government funding in order to increase the number of people living and working in their centres, and there is great optimism that they will become hubs of community life once again.”