A fundamental rethink of the West Midlands’ town centres is needed to reverse their fortunes and drive changes that benefit the region, a task force has said.
The Regional Town Centre Task Force, set up by Mayor of the West Midlands Andy Street and the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) Housing and Land Board, has vowed to use radical thinking and bold new ideas to address the issue of struggling high streets and town centres.
The group, which met for the first time this week, also described the current situation as a ‘watershed moment’, agreeing that actions to help must be delivered quickly and through a cross-party approach with politicians, local councils, community groups, academia and the private sector all coming together as one.
The task force will help guide changes and support new investment plans in each centre and across the region with an initial investment made available by the WMCA of £20 million to deliver specific local town centre regeneration projects.
The task force heard bold and exciting plans from local councils, who are leading the changes in five pilot town centres – Bilston in Wolverhampton, St Thomas Quarter in Dudley, Bordesley Green in Birmingham, St Matthews Quarter in Walsall and West Bromwich (East) in Sandwell.
Chaired by Jon Bramwell, a managing director at HSBC UK Commercial Banking, the task force also includes the Mayor and prominent people from the worlds of retail, development, finance, housing, education, community groups and Government.
Former John Lewis Managing Director Mr Street, who this week called for an overhaul of the ‘outdated’ business rates system to help small businesses as part of his commitment to help town centres, said: “The calibre and expertise of the people around the table at the first Regional Town Centre Task Force meeting was exceptional and their willingness to share their knowledge in support of the town centre programme shows just how important this issue is to our local communities and economies."
“Many of our town centres are having a hard time and yet they are often at the very heart of our communities. One idea we will be pursuing is to turn town centres into ‘free trade zones’, which would give enhanced powers to local authorities and more support for shops and local businesses.”
The aim of the taskforce is to rejuvenate town centres that have suffered in recent years, following a downturn in footfall as consumers turn to out-of-town outlets and online shopping. High streets have also been hit by a spate of recent big-name store closures leaving vacant units in key locations as a visible sign of decline.
After chairing the inaugural meeting Mr Bramwell, who has worked in the financial services sector for more than 30 years, said: “The meeting affirmed our determination to breathe new life into town centres, to work in partnership with local councils and communities and to be bold and determined to achieve this goal."
“I was enthused by the level of energy and expertise around the table. It has been almost a year since Birmingham became the new home of HSBC UK and I look forward to working with my peers to help communities in the West Midlands to thrive.”
Councillor Mike Bird, the leader of Walsall Council and WMCA portfolio holder for housing and regeneration, added: “There is no doubt that the retail offer in most, if not all, town centres is shrinking and, particularly from the large multiples."
“The vacant retail space created may make way for more residential and leisure opportunities as well as putting people back into town centres for purposes other than retail."
“This has to be our main objective as well as encouraging bespoke artisan shops and new firms of flexible workspace, all to assist in the town centres recovery initiative.”
The first five town centres to receive support from the WMCA were nominated by their local councils and a collaborative approach of each council and the WMCA has been critical to progress to date.
The combined authority will act as a catalyst to help speed up and support delivery of those ambitious town centre plans and ideas, for example by using its new Housing and Land funds to open up new development opportunities.
Further town centres will be eligible for a second wave of support later in the year, building on the experience from the first wave of centres.
West Midlands councils have also submitted bids to the Government’s nationwide £675m Future High Streets Fund, in addition to the £20m already made available by the WMCA.
The support for town centres is part of the WMCA’s wider commitment to focus regeneration efforts and housing delivery on existing urban areas and brownfield land.