67.Reimagining our towns and cities, in light of the pandemic, brings an opportunity to empower local government leaders, and to put local authorities at the very heart of that regeneration. Throughout the pandemic, local authority leaders have acted swiftly and decisively to support their communities, proving the value of local government, and it is now time to give them the power to act decisively to safeguard the long-term future of those same communities.
68.We believe that the pandemic has provided a perfect moment to reconsider the relationship between central government and local government, and reset the devolution agenda. Now is the time for central government to disentangle the apron strings and allow local authority leaders to make decisions in the best interest of their own areas. As Councillor Stewart, stated, this is a chance for local authority leaders to “get more powers to control our destiny.”
69.We want to see local authority leaders empowered to change their towns and cities for the better. The Government’s upcoming Levelling Up White Paper is an opportunity for central government to show its willingness to bring power closer to the people, by outlining its plans further devolution. However, we would encourage local authority leaders to use their existing general power of competence to take on additional responsibilities. This wide-ranging power, in practice, gives local authorities an opportunity to expand their services and support beyond those areas traditionally seen as the responsibility of local authorities. There is scope here for local authority leaders to truly innovate.
70.We believe that the resetting of the relationship between central and local government is an opportunity for Whitehall to be unequivocal in its support for, and encouragement of, the use of the general power of competence. We want to see the message disseminated loudly and clearly that central government champions the use of the general power of competence, and we believe that Whitehall should work with the Local Government Association to issue guidance notes on its operation.
71.We are under no illusion that empowering local authority leaders alone will solve all problems faced by towns and cities, and believe that this is one of a number of actions required to bring about the regeneration of our urban areas. We also acknowledge that there is a risk that further divergence between different towns and cities may cause additional issues. The very purpose of devolution, and empowering local authority leaders, is to allow different local authorities to implement different policies, depending on the needs of their towns and cities. More responsibility and power at a local level will inevitably create different approaches in different areas, potentially leading to increasing inequality between different geographical areas. Despite this, we believe that the benefits of empowering local government leaders to implement policies to meet the specific needs of their communities outweigh the risks of implementing different policies in different areas. There is no one-size fits all solution to the regeneration of our towns and cities, and central government’s approach to devolution must reflect this. As such, we believe that now is the time to re-set the relationship between central government and local government to ensure far less power resides in Whitehall at the expense of local diversity and vibrancy.
72.Since 2010, local authorities have seen a significant reduction in their budgets and it is unfair, and unrealistic, to expect them to continue to achieve more with less money. We cannot expect local authority leaders to renew, regenerate and revive their towns and cities when current budgets have left them struggling to provide basic services. As such, we believe that the recovery of our towns and cities is a moment to reconsider the current local government financial settlement to introduce a new settlement that can help, rather than hinder, local government leaders’ attempts to renew their urban areas.
73.Local authority leaders need financial stability, and increased funding, to undertake the long-term, strategic planning required to ensure the long-term viability and prosperity of our towns and cities. As such, we believe that central government must grasp this opportunity to introduce a three-year rolling local government financial settlement, at an increased level. An increased three-year settlement would balance local authority leaders’ need for flexibility, with a sense of the urgency required in implementing regeneration projects.
74.Beyond being a chance to introduce a new local government settlement, the regeneration of our towns and cities is also an occasion to reconsider the additional funding streams available to local authorities. We want to see the end of competitive bidding processes for additional funding from central government to local government. Local authority leaders should no longer be required to spend time on competitive bids for funding, that could be spent developing regeneration projects for their areas. Additional funding from central government should, instead, be allocated to towns and cities according to their needs. For example, additional funding for economic development and entrepreneurship should be focused on those towns and cities where the High Street is struggling, and additional funding for creating new green spaces should be concentrated on those towns and cities that lack such facilities.
75.We want to see additional funding from central government targeted at those towns and cities in most need, and believe that the UK Government should agree with the Local Government Association to create an improved resource equalisation scheme. Such a scheme would identify those towns and cities in greatest need, and would provide a formula for distributing funding to those areas. This approach would ensure that additional funding goes to those areas that are in most need, not those that are most adept at completing competitive bids, and provide local authority leaders with increased funding, while retaining their freedom to spend the additional funds according to the needs of their area.
76.We also believe that there is an urgent need to overhaul the current business rates system. Our declining high streets, alongside the falling demand for office space, cannot continue funding the local government settlement. And without a sufficient local government settlement, local authority leaders’ efforts to regenerate their towns and cities will struggle to succeed. We acknowledge that business rates are a large part of a business’s costs, and businesses in towns and cities across the country are already struggling, and will continue to struggle, without long-term business rates relief, or a restructuring of the current system to charge small businesses a nominal amount.
77.Under the current system of local authority finances, it is impossible to both decrease the business rates collected from small businesses on our high streets, and also provide local authority leaders with extra revenue, through an increased local government settlement to fund the recovery of our towns and cities. As such, we believe that the only realistic solution is to explore options for reforming the current business rates system. Any reform of the business rates system must also level the playing field between online and offline retail sales, ensuring that online sales also contribute to the local government settlement. We want to see the Treasury Select Committee and the Lords’ Economic Affairs Committee undertaking a detailed exploration of the potential for introducing an increased VAT rate on online sales or a hypothecated online sales tax. We believe that such a tax should be paid by the consumer and should apply to all digital initiated sales.
78.As with the risks identified in the previous section, much of the evidence on the opportunities for towns and cities emphasised that COVID-19 has accelerated existing regeneration plans, rather than necessarily creating completely new regeneration ideas.
79.Alderman Martin noted that:
“We have talked about escalating and accelerating an awful lot over the last 15 months, and that has certainly been very much an aspect of the council experience. As leaders of place, councils had already been thinking about how we can repurpose our city centres and respond to longerterm trends that were already evident on the high street. As part of that, this evolution, in effect, has been ongoing … The circumstances are different, but a lot of the same issues were coming to the fore.”
80.Many witnesses highlighted the importance of reconsidering the blend of retail, residential, office and leisure space that will be required in town and city centres, with the consensus seeming to support more leisure and residential space, with fewer retail units and smaller office spaces. Councillor Stewart submitted that:
“ … the four building blocks are retail, leisure, housing and office space in your city centre. The split between those and where you mix that in your city centre has moved probably a little bit away from retail and more towards leisure, office and housing as a result of some of the changes from Covid … .”
81.Councillor Hazel Simmons, leader of Luton Borough Council, also suggested that there is a need to reconsider the mix in town and city centres, to ensure that they are less reliant on retail. This view was echoed by Councillor Lucille Thompson, leader of Winchester City Council, in her views on the future of Winchester city centre:
“Yes, there will be some retail, but there will also be open space and there will be performance space—areas where the community can get together or events can take place. It is all about building that into city centres which, if shops close, could otherwise be dead… It is about creating that mix, so that you have people living there and obviously using the open spaces and the event space, and visiting the shops and restaurants when they are open, too.”
82.Beyond local authority leaders’ plans for diversifying the use of space in towns and cities, there is also an opportunity for local communities to rethink their use of space in urban areas. The Committee believes, despite the challenging times faced by towns and cities, that it is important to recognise that the pandemic has created opportunities to reinvent community spaces and community-level activities in our urban areas.
83.Out of necessity, communities established mutual aid groups, peer support groups and new community hubs to support the most vulnerable in society. Community groups also transformed the delivery of arts and culture—organising outdoor film screens and theatre performances, and bringing arts to those who were isolated, such as performing in the car parks of care homes. This innovation must not be lost in the rush to ‘return to normal’.
84.Rather, we want to see increased opportunities to reinvent community spaces and community-level activities in our towns and cities. However, in contrast to communities having to transform their activities with little support during the pandemic, we want to see community groups provided with training, funding and practical support to maximise their ability to try new, innovative ideas and to be sustainable.
85.Beyond reconsidering the blend of retail, residential, office and leisure space in town and city centres, witnesses stressed the potential of arts, culture and the creative sectors to regenerate urban areas. Councillor Stewart noted that:
“Some members will know that we bid for City of Culture, and were unsuccessful, just before the pandemic. We have decided to deliver the City of Culture ambition anyway. That means we are delivering a 3,500seater capacity arena, which will open in a couple of months’ time, Covid allowing. That is another reason for people to come and visit our city centre.
… As I mentioned, we have our large arena complex opening, which will deliver 220 events a year in Swansea. That is 220 days a year when people will come to visit Swansea when they previously did not.”
86.Alderman Martin described how Lisburn and Castlereagh City Council had reinvented its arts and culture offering, including attracting new audiences:
“We have a museum here in Lisburn and it is the centre of the city, but the footfall would have been perhaps less than we would have expected, given its location. The pandemic required everybody, in effect, to think differently. We engaged new technology and went online, and the feedback from that has been phenomenal. … One of the things that came from that was that the talks associated with it, which are not necessarily something that people who are not involved in these things would devote an hour or two to viewing, actually got great viewership online, because people thought, “That sounds interesting. I have a free half an hour here. I can come back to it and watch it”. We reached a lot more people because of that, so there was an impact that we want to hold on to—connecting to people who perhaps just would not have engaged with the arts beforehand, and increasing that understanding.”
87.He also explained how the council had changed its ways of working during the pandemic to bring arts and culture to residents in more innovative ways, highlighting the role of technology in providing new arts and culture opportunities:
“Our community arts team did a great outdoors exhibition and, during the height of Covid, went round our residential care homes and did an outside play, which was put on a PA system and broadcast into the nursing home. You can think outside the box there, but in terms of the technology, that is an enabler for us going forward for our creative and cultural output.”
88.Councillor Stewart noted that the regeneration agenda not only has the potential to use culture to bring people back into town and city centres, but also to create jobs and encourage arts and culture practitioners to return to town and city centres:
“ … We are taking the opportunity as well, as part of this build back better strategy, to bring a lot of our cultural venues back into use and to turn over some of the commercial space to cultural enterprises—opening up mini-galleries and supporting artists to take on premises without the costs they would otherwise face. We are trying to boost the grassroots-level cultural innovation that is there.”
89.While we agree that arts and culture, and particularly attracting arts and culture practitioners back into town and city centres, can provide an opportunity to increase vibrancy in town and city centres, we would also sound a note of caution. Any increase in arts and culture practitioners living and working in town and city centres must be balanced against the risks of pushing out other groups, communities and facilities, and local authority leaders must be alive to the risks of gentrification.
90.Witnesses highlighted the possibility of repurposing empty retail units to create more vibrant towns and cities, and we believe that empty retail units could be transformed into creative hubs to bring cultural and creative opportunities to town and city centres. We want to see local authorities supporting cultural, creative and community groups to transform empty retail units into creative, community hubs.
91.Local authority leaders emphasised the potential to repurpose empty retail units, by creating housing on the upper floors of high street buildings, with retail, leisure, food, public services and workspaces on the ground floor. Councillor Smith stated that the council’s “focus in the town centre has always been to reidentify it to bring housing on the top floors.” This view was echoed by Councillor Stewart, who stated that having residential space on top floors and commercial space on the ground floor is a common sight in London, and that Swansea Council will be working to replicate this in its area.
92.Local authority leaders also proposed that there is a chance to use empty retail units to bring public services back into town and city centres. Councillor Smith stated that Great Yarmouth Council had already brought a university campus into an old building in the town centre, as well as moving the library to the town centre. Councillor Simmons noted that as Luton had lost large town centre stores, the council is now considering how it can “work to offer public sector health facilities and retail in the same building.” She suggested that combining commercial and public services may help to attract people back to the town centre and alleviate some of the financial pressures of renting a large, town centre property. Councillor Stewart was of a similar opinion, stating that in future there will probably be more public and government services on high streets because they can increase footfall in town and city centres and ensure that those services are easily accessible.
93.Witnesses described the potential of pop-up businesses to bring vibrancy to town and city centres, by filling empty retail units. Andrew Carter explained how some developers are already “providing space as part of developments that provide meanwhile use or pop-up spaces, spaces for different uses, on peppercorn rents… to bring some of that vibrancy back.” Local authority leaders agreed, with Councillor Stewart explaining that in some of the buildings it has acquired, Swansea Council is:
“ … trying to give meanwhile use to some of the units before we find longerterm tenants for them, as part of the regeneration. As we demolish areas to create new public spaces, we are creating new temporary spaces that we will develop later down the road, and we are offering plots in those spaces for popups and others. We see it as a good way to encourage businesses to start up and to help them grow to a scale where they can then go into a formal unit and grow further from there.”
94.Alderman Martin was of a similar opinion, noting that pop-up units “are brilliant, particularly for young people or people who are perhaps returning to the workforce” as “they can be an opportunity to test the waters.” He believed that local authorities should facilitate the creation of pop-up units and “should not be afraid of risk or things going wrong.”
95.While any long-term change to working patterns has the potential to impact the demand for office space in town and city centres, office space will still be needed, as Councillor Hinchcliffe explained:
“On the office space question, the alternative view is that we have limited grade A office space in Bradford, so we are investing in some grade A office space, and that is still valid after the pandemic. Some of the places that have lots and lots of office space will be downsizing… but they need somewhere to downsize to, otherwise we will lose them completely from the district. It is about getting the most appropriate spaces for them to retain them in the district even if they downsize from their existing sites now.”
96.Craig McLaren, Director at Royal Town Planning Institute Scotland, also suggested that companies will still require some office space, and warned against overemphasising the impact of home working on property in town and city centres:
“ … although we have all been moving to this hybrid model and people have been working perhaps two or three days a week, companies will probably still need an office that is available Monday to Friday at least and from 9 to 5, so it might not have as big an impact on the property sector, and the correlation might not be exact because people will still have the office. They may well downsize, but some of them may be tied into longer-term leases or they may own the building themselves. The impact of working from home will not correlate exactly with the impact on the property side in cities and towns.”
97.Beyond the traditional office, there are other opportunities to attract workers back to town and city centres. In our first substantive inquiry, exploring the impact of our increasing reliance on digital technology on our wellbeing, Professor Abigail Marks, Principle Investigator with the Working@home Project, believed that there is a need for community hubs to allow those with insufficient space or infrastructure at home, to work remotely away from their organisation. During our current inquiry, Joe Fitzsimons, from the Institute of Directors, explained that there is an increased appetite for co-working and collaborative spaces: “About a third of our members have talked about moving towards co-working spaces, which is another potential area of growth for high streets and city centres …”
98.Rooney Anand, from WorldSkills UK, also supported the creation of city centre work hubs to allow those who cannot work from home to benefit from any increase in remote working. Empty retail units could be rejuvenated by being turned into city centre work hubs, and employees could benefit from being given: “ … the infrastructure they need, like wi-fi and a printer, on a pro-bono or very low-cost basis, to give them the chance to work from home if they do not want to work in their dwelling.”
99.We have heard of the risks to passenger numbers, the financial viability of public transport services, and ultimately, the long-term future of public transport provision in town and cities. These risks may be mitigated by using regeneration to reconsider the traditional provision of public transport, in favour of a more reliable and sustainable model, that supports the recovery of town and city centres.
100.Prior to the pandemic, public transport provision was predicated on supplying peak demand to transport large volumes of people to and from their workplace during the morning and evening rush hours, we now have the chance to design differently. As people work more flexibly—both in terms of hours and location—there is an “opportunity for public transport to rethink its networks around the city.” David Cowan, Director of Commercial Operations at Translink, agreed, stating that: “ … we have to look at alternative services… We have to think about more orbital routes, different types of connections …”
101.John Birtwistle advised that the public transport industry will have to be innovative to react to changes in working, shopping and leisure patterns. These behavioural changes provide the public transport sector with an opportunity to reimagine public transport, providing residents with different services to meet their differing needs. Public transport providers and local authority leaders should work together to ensure that public transport becomes a key element of the regeneration of town and city centres, supporting local authorities’ emphasis on providing residential, work, retail and leisure opportunities in town and city centres.
102.The reimagining of public transport provision is also a chance to reconsider both central, and local, government’s funding of these services. In October 2021, the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, announced that English city regions would receive £6.9 billion over five years, to improve public transport. While we welcome this additional funding, we believe that additional funding to improve, and reimagine, public transport services should be distributed to all towns and cities, not merely city regions. Providing additional funding to city regions, without similar provision for other towns and cities, risks creating a two-tier system of public transport in our urban areas.
103.Whether within current budgets, or using additional funds from central government, local government leaders may decide that the importance of the future viability of public transport services, and their potential role in the regeneration of towns and cities, means that they should be subsidised. Different local authorities may decide to subside public transport service in different ways, depending on the needs of residents and visitors in their area. For example, some local authorities may decide to subsidise:
104.Even with additional funding or subsidy, the only way in which public transport can play a key element in the regeneration and renewal of town and city centres is if there is a renewed emphasis on public transport access to town and city centres, with passengers being taken to the very centre of towns and cities. Public transport provision must not only go to the heart of town and city centres, but must also not be pushed into the derelict or unattractive corners of town and city centres. Bus stations, trains stations, tram stops and bus stops must be provided in those areas—near shops, cafes, restaurants, theatres, cinemas, football stadia, parks—where residents and visitors want to spend their time. There is little purpose, and little regenerative benefit, in investing in new public transport services if they take passengers to the edge of towns and cities or to those areas that have little to offer residents and visitors. To attract more passengers to use public transport, and therefore visit our town and city centres, public transport must be seen as a fundamental aspect of our urban areas.
105.We believe that the recovery of our towns and cities provides an occasion to reconsider the current planning system to make public transport provision a focal point in our towns and cities. An amended planning system should safeguard, and strengthen, the provision of town and city-centric public transport. As John Birtwistle suggested:
“We need to ensure that, when we are planning for future developments, they are not these monolithic, car-centred, out-of-town facilities that people do not stand a chance of being able to serve with a commercial bus service and which, in the current environment, local authorities are unable to subsidise a service to run to.”
106.David Cowan agreed, stating that:
“we have too many housing or shopping developments that you cannot access easily by bus. That is easily fixed by building that into the process… A key issue is land use and public transport being planned together.”
107.The regeneration of towns and cities is a chance to improve the provision of, and access to, urban green spaces, by improving existing urban parks, creating new parks, as well as creating small parklets and other open spaces. As Councillor Hinchcliffe described, Bradford District Council has been building new play areas, creating new parks, and putting more money into the maintenance of paths, while Councillor Stewart noted that Swansea Council had delivered 31 park improvements and play areas. It is vital that the provision of urban green spaces is not merely increased in those areas that already benefit from a plentiful supply of open spaces, but rather, is targeted at those geographical areas and communities that lack access to green spaces.
108.Councillor Simmons described how Luton Borough Council is developing a new town centre park, as well as working to ensure that more people are using the parks in Luton. The recovery provides local authority leaders with an opportunity to assess who is, and is not, using the parks, play areas and green spaces in their towns and cities, and try to discover the barriers for those not using urban green spaces. It is only by asking residents why they are not using urban green spaces, that they can be improved, and these barriers dismantled.
109.Beyond understanding the barriers to accessing green spaces, regeneration has the potential to improve the condition of all urban green spaces to ensure that high-quality urban green spaces are available to all. For too long some areas have enjoyed well-maintained parks and play areas, while other have had to make do with dilapidated, poorly maintained green spaces. As Councillor Thompson highlighted: “ … residents’ wish to have access to open space, and not just any old open space like a cruddy old pavement or path to walk down, but high-quality open spaces.”
110.Councillor Thompson also emphasised that Winchester City Council will now be building in the need for open spaces into its local plan, with any new developments having to have good open space that is accessible to everyone. The regeneration of town and cities is an opportunity to amend current planning policies and guidelines to ensure that the provision of public green spaces and open spaces becomes a prerequisite for any new developments—housing, hospitals, schools, retail parks, workspaces, train stations—in towns and cities. Local authorities may wish to be bolder still, and amend planning policies and guidelines to ensure that when empty retail units are converted into housing, premises for public service provision, pop-up units or town and city centre work hubs, that there is an expectation that any such conversion will create new urban green and open spaces, such as publicly accessible parklets, play areas and courtyards.
111.Given that the most vulnerable in our communities were hardest hit during the pandemic, tackling inequalities is vital to the country as we begin to emerge from the pandemic. We recognise that those who are marginalised in society are not a homogenous group and witnesses explained the great disparities faced by each of the local areas. Local authority leaders, working closely with local communities, must therefore grasp the opportunity to develop new ways of working together to identify and support vulnerable members of society.
112.To ensure that towns and cities meet the needs of those whose experiences lead to disadvantage, we believe that no decisions should be made without the participation of vulnerable groups. Those whose experience of disadvantage and discrimination—for example an isolated single parent with a disabled child; a Black care worker unable to work from home—should have a significant role in shaping the services and practices that could prove to be of most help to them. The recovery of our towns and cities provides local authorities with the perfect opportunity to reconsider their approach to regeneration, and put the views of specific groups, communities and neighbourhoods at the heart of their recovery plans.
113.We believe that our blended approach to the recovery of our towns and cities provides a perfect opportunity to put tackling inequality and disadvantage at the heart of local authority leaders’ plans for their towns and cities, but only if developed in conjunction with those groups it aims to benefit. We have emphasised that while we believe that the regeneration of town and city centres is vital to the wider recovery of towns and cities, we want to see this matched by a commitment to, and investment in, those neighbourhoods most in need. As such, we have suggested that local authorities should develop a two-pronged, blended approach to urban regeneration and renewal. The first part of this approach will focus on developing new opportunities—pop-up retail units, work hubs and arts and culture—in towns and cities, while the second part will concentrate on investing in housing, public services, public transport and green spaces in town and city centres, as well as and those neighbourhoods that risk being left behind.
114.We believe that focusing funding on those neighbourhoods most in need is a vital step to tackling inequalities between different areas and communities within towns and cities, and putting right the historical wrong of under-investment in these neighbourhoods. As described in more detail elsewhere in the report, we want to see investment that will make a practical difference to the lives of people living in these neighbourhoods—better housing, better public services, better public transport services. However, we believe that only the residents of those neighbourhoods themselves can fully understand the most suitable services and facilities for their area, and local authorities must work with these communities when developing their investment plans.
115.We believe that action to tackle inequalities must not only be targeted at specific neighbourhoods, but must be mainstreamed throughout local authorities’ regeneration agenda. We have explained above how some accelerating trends, such as the demise of town and city centres and any reduction in public transport provision, will have a disproportionate impact on specific groups and communities. Local authority leaders have the chance not only to reverse those accelerating trends, but also to mitigate their current, and future, effect by ensuring that the needs of specific groups and communities, are at the forefront of their regeneration plans.
116.We want to see local authority leaders using the renewal of their urban areas as an occasion to create towns and cities that are open and accessible to all. As such, when local authority leaders are developing their plans for repurposing retail units, repurposing workspaces, developing sustainable public transport and developing green and open spaces it is vital that they ensure that they are accessible to, and meet the needs of, different groups and communities within their towns and cities. Local authority leaders should also use their regeneration plans as a chance to introduce specific schemes to ensure that the new opportunities in towns and cities—work hubs, pop-up retail units, arts and culture opportunities—are targeted at the needs of specific groups and communities. The only way to ensure that the needs of specific communities are at the heart of the regeneration agenda, and are fully met by specific projects, is by actively engaging with them.
58 (Councillor Rob Stewart)
59 (Alderman Stephen Martin)
60 (Councillor Rob Stewart)
61 (Councillor Hazel Simmons)
62 (Councillor Lucille Thompson)
63 (Councillor Rob Stewart)
64 (Alderman Stephen Martin)
66 (Councillor Rob Stewart)
67 (Councillor Carl Smith)
68 (Councillor Rob Stewart)
69 (Councillor Carl Smith)
70 (Councillor Hazel Simmons)
71 (Councillor Rob Stewart)
72 (Andrew Carter)
73 (Councillor Rob Stewart)
74 (Alderman Stephen Martin)
76 (Councillor Susan Hinchcliffe)
77 (Craig McLaren)
78 COVID-19 Committee, (1st Report, Session 2019–21, HL Paper 263)
79 (Joe Fitzsimmons)
80 (Rooney Anand)
81 (Professor Nick Tyler)
82 (David Cowan)
83 (John Birtwistle)
84 BBC News, ‘Budget 2021:English city regions to get £6.9bn for public transport’, (23 October 2021): [accessed 25 October 2021]
85 (John Birtwistle)
86 (David Cowan)
87 (Councillor Susan Hinchcliffe)
88 (Councillor Rob Stewart)
89 (Councillor Hazel Simmons)
90 (Councillor Lucille Thompson)