Towns and Cities: Local Power is the Path to Recovery Contents

Chapter 4: The future of our towns and cities

117.When discussing the future of towns and cities, urban areas are often framed as places to be ‘saved’ or ‘protected’. However, the seismic changes brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic means that we must reimagine the towns and cities of the future, rather than pining for the urban areas of the past. As Alderman Martin asserted “there is no going back” to our pre-pandemic towns and cities, rather “we must accept change.”91

118.Any attempt to revert to business as usual in towns and cities after the pandemic is likely to be like trying to stop the tide. Rather than looking backwards, we must all—central government, local authorities, businesses, and residents—look forwards and work together to recreate our towns and cities into the vibrant places that they can, and should, be. We believe that the pandemic offers fresh opportunities to create towns and cities that will thrive in the future.

Town and city leadership

119.Before discussing our vison for increasingly empowered local authority leaders, we would like to highlight the importance of diverse local authority leadership. It was a breath of fresh air to hear the views of local authority leaders from across the UK, and we were heartened to see that four out of the seven leaders giving evidence were women. Progress has been made in developing diverse local authority representatives, and leaders, but there is still work to be done. We were impressed by the local authority leaders that gave evidence to us, and our call for improved diversity is in no way a criticism of current local authority leaders. Rather, we believe that improved diversity amongst local authority representatives, and leaders, will improve the representation of all communities within towns and cities, and strengthen the belief amongst all groups and communities that local authorities represent, and work for the benefit, of all their constituents.

Empowering local authority leaders

120.We have received insufficient evidence to create a comprehensive proposal for further legislative devolution, however, we believe that the UK Government must take the opportunity offered by its upcoming Levelling Up White Paper to explain its plans for further legislative and financial devolution of powers.

121.Beyond the devolution of further legislative powers to local authority leaders, we want to see those leaders using their existing general power of competence to take on additional responsibilities, and transform their towns and cities. We believe that this power gives local authority leaders an opportunity to implement innovative regeneration projects. Different projects will be suitable for different towns and cities, depending on the needs of individual communities, but local authority leaders may want to consider ideas, such as:

122.However, local authority leaders will only use the general power of competence, and be confident of the limits of this power, if central government supports, and encourages its use. We want to see the UK Government issue a statement to all local authority leaders actively encouraging the use of the general power of competence. We also believe that the UK Government should work with the Local Government Association to issue guidance notes on its operation.

Local government finances

123.We want to see all local authority leaders empowered to develop long-term strategic plans for their areas. As such, we believe that the recovery of our towns and cities is an unmissable opportunity to introduce a new system of local government financial settlements. We want to see local authority leaders given increased funds and financial flexibility, through the introduction of a three-year rolling local government financial settlement, at an increased level. We believe that such an increased settlement would improve financial security, and allow local authorities to plan for the long-term future of their towns and cities.

124.Our proposal is for local authority leaders to have the financial security, and flexibility, to undertake ambitious regeneration projects, such as:

125.Beyond the introduction of an improved local government settlement, we want to see a new system replacing the current system of bidding for additional funding streams available to local authorities. We believe that additional funding from central government should be targeted at those areas of most need. 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.

126.Additional central government funding will have the largest impact possible where it is targeted at those areas in most need. To make this a reality, we want to see the UK Government agreeing 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.

127.An improved resource equalisation scheme would provide a transparent method of assessing those towns and cities in most need, and ensuring that additional central government funding focuses on these areas. Those areas assessed as being in most need would then have additional funding to invest in the regeneration of their towns and cities. While the regeneration projects required will differ from one town or city to the other, they may include ideas, such as:

Business rates

128.It will be impossible to bring about the recovery of our towns and cities without a complete overhaul of 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.

129.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.

130.Following its inquiry on the impact of businesses rates on business, we would encourage the Treasury Select Committee to update this work in light of the pandemic, as well encouraging it and the Lords Economic Affairs Committee to undertake a detailed exploration of the potential for introducing an increased VAT rate on online sales or a hypothecated online sales tax. Such a tax would be paid by the consumer and would apply to all digital initiated sales. We believe that even a small, single percentage, increase in VAT on online sales could fill the gap in local government finances resulting from decreasing business rates collected. A slightly larger increase could provide local authorities with the funds to attract, and keep, sole traders, repair shops and micro-businesses in town and city centres by offering business premises with zero business rates. We would like to see some local authorities implementing a zero business rate for sole traders and micro-businesses as part of a pilot project to understand its implications for local authority finances.

Accelerating trends

131.Witnesses have emphasised the importance of town and city centres, and the potential link between towns and cities and the wellbeing of residents. If towns and cities become dilapidated, with poor housing and green spaces, limited public transport, public services, and leisure opportunities, it is inevitable that people’s wellbeing will suffer. If towns and cities are vibrant, with a plentiful supply of high-quality housing and green spaces, reliable and affordable public transport, and a wide range of public services, workspaces and leisure opportunities people’s wellbeing will tend to improve and people may feel better about themselves and their lives. Councillor Davidson described how Highland Council’s plans for Inverness would focus on “city centre first”92 to prevent the hollowing out of the city. She went on to explain that the plan would: “ … very clearly reinforce city centre first and look for housebuilding and accommodation in the city centre so that we rebuild the city centre.”93

132.While we support the sentiment behind developing a town and city centre first approach to the regeneration of our towns and cities, we do not want to see investment concentrated solely in central areas, to the detriment of other neighbourhoods. We believe that there is a need for local authority leaders to develop a two-pronged approach to the renewal of our towns and cities.

133.We suggest that in developing housing, public transport, access to green spaces, and the provision of public services, the renewal of our towns and cities should concentrate on those neighbourhoods that have not benefitted from previous regeneration projects. We want to see local authorities developing a system for identifying those neighbourhoods that face the greatest challenges, and undertaking assessments to ensure that all regeneration policies have a positive impact on these neighbourhoods in need.

134.Secondly, we want to see local authority leaders investing in creating lively, vibrant town and cities that offer new opportunities—arts and culture, pop-up retail premises, work hubs—for all residents. The aim of such investment should be to turn towns and cities into destinations that attract residents and visitors alike. We want to see towns and cities become places that people want to visit beyond just going to their workplace or the local supermarket or shopping centre. Councillor Stewart described Swansea Council’s plans to turn the city into a destination, attracting visitors for a multitude of purposes:

“ … cities such as Swansea need to become destinations in the way, perhaps, that London is, so that people do not choose to go there just to work or to live but for numerous purposes; they tie them all together and have a great time while they are there.”94

135.We want to see local government leaders develop new, different reasons for people to visit towns and cities, such as:

Culture and the arts

136.A vital part of attracting residents and visitors back into towns and cities is providing a strong, diverse arts and culture offering in urban areas. We want to see local authority leaders working with existing arts organisations and private business to increase the cultural provision in their towns and cities. Different projects will be suitable for different areas, but local authorities may want to consider potential ideas, including:

137.We also want to see local authorities using their existing arts and culture offering to attract new audiences, and ultimately encourage more people to visit towns and cities. However, not all arts and culture opportunities should be delivered by local authorities directly, and we want to see them working with creative and community organisations to deliver the activities that are most suitable for their area. Again, there is no one-size fits all approach, but local authorities may want to explore ideas, such as:

138.We believe that the recovery of towns and cities has the potential to bring arts and culture practitioners back into town and city centres. We would like to see local authorities providing specific support for artists, musicians, theatre practitioners and other creative professionals, such as:

139.In providing support to bring arts and culture practitioners back into town and city centres, we would like to see local authorities being mindful of the needs of other groups and communities, to ensure that they are not pushed out of town and city centres. We believe that local authority leaders must be alive to the potential for increasing arts and culture practitioners living and working in town and city centres to lead to gentrification, and believe that action must be taken to mitigate this risk.

Housing

140.Too many towns and cities are being hollowed-out by increasing numbers of holiday and short-term lets, leaving residents without an adequate supply of housing. We want to see local authorities developing policies to safeguard the current housing supply. In those areas that are particularly affected by a proliferation of holiday and short-term lets, we believe that local authorities should introduce particular planning regulations to:

141.Beyond safeguarding the current housing stock, we want to see a blended approach to housing in towns and cities, with thriving town and city centres, where residents of all kinds—students, young professionals, families with children, and older people who require additional support—have all returned to living in town and city centres. However, this return to town and city centre living should not come at the cost of pushing other activities, such as retail, work, leisure and public services out of town and city centres. Rather, we want to see a blended approach, where residents have returned to town and city centres, but local authorities have also invested in other neighbourhoods, that have not benefitted from investment in housing.

142.While we acknowledge that transforming commercial properties into residential properties is not without its challenges, we believe that it is a vital step towards increasing resilience and stability within towns and cities.

143.Our proposal for the future of towns and cities is not one of empty retail units turned into low-quality, high-density, sub-standard housing. Instead, we want to see empty retail units developed into high-quality, affordable housing, with some available for rental and others sold as affordable housing. There is no one-size fits all approach to bringing residents back into town and city centres, and what works in one town may not work in another. We would encourage local authority leaders to explore with developers all potential options, including:

144.As we explained above, we want to see any increase in investment in town and city centres, matched by increasing investment in those neighbourhoods that have not previously benefitted from regeneration funds. As such, we want to see an increase in investment in housing targeted at those neighbourhoods at risk of being left behind. The exact nature of that investment will depend on the specific needs of individual neighbourhoods, but may include:

145.Any increase in residential properties in town and city centres, will also necessitate an increase in public service provision in town and city centres. As such, local authorities should consider using the ground floor of empty retail units (and particularly those that have seen their upper floors converted into residential premises) to provide public services. Ground floor units (depending on their size) could be converted into:

146.We would also like to see local authorities exploring the opportunities for bringing schools to town and city centres, and working with further and higher education providers, to bring colleges and university campuses into these areas too. Returning public services to town and city centres would increase the provision of essential services in those areas (particularly if we see increasing number of residents) and increase footfall in town and city centres.

147.As with housing, any investment in town and city centre public service provision, should be matched by investment in public services in those neighbourhoods that risk being left behind. Again, the exact nature of that investment will depend on the specific needs of individual neighbourhoods, but may include:

Workplaces

148.Increasing the provision of essential services in town and city centres will increase footfall, but as witnesses emphasised, there is a need to create as many reasons as possible for people to visit their town or city. As such, we believe that central government should work with local authorities to create a network of work hubs in towns and cities. These hubs would allow those who cannot work from their own home to benefit from remote working opportunities, would increase footfall in town and city centres, would provide more customers for town and city centre shops and cafes, and would fill empty retail units.

149.Work hubs may look very different in different towns and cities, depending on the size of the particular town or city, the demand for such spaces and the empty premises available. Depending on the nature of their specific areas, local authority leaders may want to consider:

150.To ensure that workers fully benefit from the potential of work hubs in towns and cities, it is vital that these spaces are subsidised for those on lower incomes, allowing all those who want to use work hubs to use them. Such a subsidy would also ensure that work hubs have as much impact as possible on town and city centres, by increasing footfall and increasing the potential spend of those using the work hubs.

Retail

151.We want to see local authority leaders creating thriving town and city centres by encouraging new businesses to open in their area by providing empty retail units for a peppercorn rent to new, and pop-up businesses. New and pop-up businesses would help to create high streets that have a healthy blend of national and international chain stores, local independent businesses and new, emerging businesses. Any support provided by local authority leaders to new, pop-up businesses would benefit their areas by:

152.Our proposal is not of town and city centres with a merry-go-round of pop-up businesses opening and then closing within six months because of a lack of support. Rather, we want to see local authorities introducing a package of tailored support for new and pop-up businesses to ensure that those businesses that are viable survive and thrive. We also want to see local authorities introducing a system to support successful pop-up businesses into permanent premises in town and city centres, therefore ensuring that new businesses can take up the pop-up retail units.

153.There is no one-size fits all approach to encouraging new and pop-up businesses and different towns and cities will have different needs and wants. We would encourage local authority leaders to explore with businesses all potential options, including:

Public transport

154.We want to see a reliable, affordable and sustainable public transport model that supports the recovery of towns and cities, and believe that local authority leaders working should work with public transport providers to develop reimagined public transport services. Public transport provision will no longer just be concentrated on transporting commuters to their offices early in the morning, and back home in the evenings. Rather, we want to see public transport services that meet the needs of the wider local population, and reflect the reasons why people visit towns and cities.

155.There is little purpose in trying to develop more reasons for residents and visitors to come to towns and cities (as described above), if public transport provision cannot meet these additional needs. If local authority leaders want to improve the leisure and cultural opportunities in their urban area, there is a complimentary requirement to improve evening and late-night public transport provision. If local authorities want to attract residents to come to their town or city centre at the weekend, there is a corresponding requirement to improve Sunday public transport services. The exact public transport services required in each town and city will depend on the extent of existing services and the priorities of local government leaders, but we would like to see the expansion of services, such as:

156.We want to see improved public transport provision playing a key role in the recovery and regeneration of towns and cities. To enhance the regenerative potential of public transport provision, there is a need for a renewed emphasis on public transport access to town and city centres. People will only visit towns and cities if public transport can take them to the very centre of towns and cities.

157.To maximise the impact of public transport on the regeneration of towns and cities, local authority leaders should work with public transport providers to ensure that public transport takes residents and visitors to where they want to go. If local government leaders are increasing the reasons for people to visit their local urban areas, this must be matched by an increase in public transport infrastructure in those areas. If local authority leaders open a new music arena or sports stadium, there is a complimentary need for more bus stops or tram stops in that area. Bus stations, train stations, tram stops and bus stops must be provided in those areas where residents and visitors want to spend their time, such as:

158.As with housing and public services, we believe that any increase in public transport services serving town and city centres should be matched by increased investment in public transport provision in those neighbourhoods that risk being left behind. The exact nature of the investment in public transport provision will depend on the needs of the specific neighbourhoods, but may include:

159.As the expansion of public transport services, in both individual neighbourhoods and the town or city centre, may not be commercially viable, we would like to see local authority leaders explore the possibility of subsidising specific services, as part of their wider regeneration efforts. The type of public transport services that should be subsidised will differ according to the priorities of different local authorities and the needs of different towns and cities. However, we believe that local authority leaders should consider subsidising services, such as evening services, Sunday services, and services from town and city centres to out-of-town locations; as well as subsidising specific tickets, such as frequent traveller tickets, weekly tickets and monthly tickets.

160.We also want to see local authorities, working with public transport providers, to develop intermodal ticketing and payment systems. This would allow passengers to buy one ticket or make a single contactless payment, for one journey, regardless of how many different modes of transport are used for that journey. For too long public transport in our towns and cities has been fragmented, with different bus and train companies requiring different tickets, forcing passengers to wait for a service from the correct provider or buy another ticket.

161.Public transport must become a simple and hassle-free way of travelling in, and around, our towns and cities, if it is to have any chance of thriving in the future. Moreover, as attracting residents and visitors into our towns and cities is critical to their recovery, we cannot allow an overly complex, fragmented public transport system to hold them back. As such, we want to see local authorities, public transport providers and the UK Government working together to explore the potential for intermodal ticketing systems in our towns and cities.

Green spaces

162.As we explained in Chapter 2, access to green spaces is vital to our health and wellbeing, but it is also an important symbol of the kind of towns and cities we want to see in the future. Meeting the UK’s climate targets, and reaching net zero by 2050 is not just about reducing carbon emissions, but also about considering, and creating a new blueprint for what a net zero town or city should look like. We want to see increased, and improved, access to green spaces being considered hand in hand with the wider efforts to tackle climate change and reduce our carbon emissions, and believe that nature, green spaces and biodiversity must be at the heart of our plans for the future of our towns and cities.

163.We believe that our efforts to reduce carbon emissions should not only improve the long-term health of our planet, but also be seen as a catalyst for creating ‘greener’ towns and cities. As such, we set out our proposals for increasing the supply of, and access to, green spaces in our towns and cities, but want local authority leadership to see this as the first step towards creating green, net zero towns and cities.

164.We want to see all towns and cities with a plentiful supply of high-quality, accessible parks, green spaces and open spaces. We believe that local authority leaders should invest in improving existing parks and play areas, ensuring that every park and play area is open, accessible and welcoming, and has facilities that will encourage the increased use of parks and play areas, such as:

165.Beyond improving existing green spaces, local government leaders should undertake a programme to increase parks, parklets and play areas in their urban areas. Some types of green and open spaces will be more suitable for some towns and cities, than others, depending on existing provision and geography. For example, if a town or city already has large parks, it may be more suitable to create smaller parklets and outside courtyards, or if a town has many smaller open spaces, but no access to large green spaces, it may be possible to improve access to a waterway, such as a river, stream or canal.

166.We want to see local authority leaders being innovative in their approach to developing new green and outside spaces, exploring options, such as:

167.While improving the condition of existing green spaces, and increasing the supply of green and open spaces, is vital to the recovery of towns and cities, the long-term regeneration of urban areas will depend upon safeguarding the long-term future of green and open spaces. We want to see local authority leaders amending their planning policies and guidelines to ensure that all new developments—residential, commercial or public service—will build in the need to provide green or open spaces that are open and accessible to all. New housing developments in particular, whether flats, houses or new housing estates, should include good-quality play areas, that are open and accessible to all children and young people. We want to see local government leaders using their planning policies and guidelines to encourage the development of more innovative green and open spaces, such as:

Inequalities

168.Our proposal is for a new approach to tackling inequalities, where those who are most vulnerable in our communities are active partners in developing the investment plans, and projects, that will change their lives. Attempts to tackle inequalities by imposing answers on communities as not worked, and will not work. Rather, we believe that no decisions should be made without the participation of vulnerable groups. Those who face disadvantage and discrimination must have a role in developing the services and practices that could prove to be of most help to them.

169.We want to see the regeneration of our towns and cities making a real difference to the lives of all residents, not merely those who already enjoy many of the benefits offered by our urban areas. We want to see local authorities using their recovery agendas to close the gap between the more advantaged and disadvantaged communities within their towns and cities. There is little purpose, and even less regenerative benefit, in investing in the same areas of our towns and cities over and over again, while other neighbourhoods are forgotten. We cannot allow this to be another missed opportunity to tackle the stubborn inequalities that in our towns and cities.

170.Working with vulnerable groups, communities and neighbourhoods, we want to see local authorities develop a blended approach to the regeneration of their towns and cities. Such an approach must ensure that investment in town and city centres is matched by a commitment to, and investment in, those neighbourhoods most in need. As such, we suggest 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. Only the residents of these neighbourhoods fully understand their needs, so local authorities must put the views of residents at the heart of the process for developing investment plans and regeneration projects within these neighbourhoods.

171.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, but only if developed with those communities that they are aiming to benefit. Action to tackle inequalities must not only be targeted at specific neighbourhoods, but must be mainstreamed throughout local authorities’ regeneration agenda. We have explained that 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. We believe that the only way of putting the needs of specific groups and communities at the heart of the regeneration agenda, is by listening to them.

172.We want to see local authority leaders using the renewal of their urban areas as an occasion to create towns and cities that meet the needs of all groups and communities. For too long some groups and communities have been expected to live in unsuitable housing, with no access to green spaces, poot public transport links and sub-standard public services. This cannot be allowed to continue.

173.Local authority leaders must ensure that in developing their plans for improved housing, increased green spaces, increased public services, and improved public transport provision they listen to, and meet the needs of, different groups and communities within their towns and cities. Different groups and communities in different areas will have different needs, and there is no one-size fits all approach to creating open and accessible town and cities. However, we believe that local authority leaders should explore:

174.We also want to see local authority leaders using 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. Again, the needs of specific groups and communities can only be targeted, if they are understood. As such, we want to see local authorities actively engaging with different groups and communities to develop a real understanding of their needs. The exact projects most suitable to meet the differing needs of specific groups and communities will be different in different areas, but we want to see local authority leaders consider:


91 74 (Alderman Stephen Martin)

92 Q 53 (Councillor Margaret Davidson)

93 Q 56 (Councillor Margaret Davidson)

94 Ibid.




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