Your decisions can make the difference between a successful town centre and a declining one, with an impact across an even wider area.
Growing centres have a balance of new and existing uses and good public transport provision. Failing ones create pressure for out-of-town shopping centres and pose a threat to the viability of existing services. Councillors have the opportunity, within their core strategy, to be very clear about where they believe new mixed use, large scale development will underpin and not undermine the existing retail offer, and integrate well into the neighbourhood.
One useful principle is the recognition that streets and pedestrians are as important as buildings and cars – a successful town centre will work for everybody.
What you can do about town centres
- Think about the role of your town centre – what is its unique selling point? You could:
- consider the special qualities of the existing centre and how new development could improve it
- organise design competitions for public realm projects – as Nottingham did at Old Market Square
- use masterplans and area action plans to help you plan the future, as councillors did in Soham (see case study below)
- get directly involved. If you have executive responsibilities you can support the masterplan, engage in the development of the brief for town centre regeneration or act as the project champion; but if you are a ward councillor you can bring people together to promote change
- ask officers to identify empty buildings and who owns them, then establish if they can be brought back into use.
- Look at different opportunities to revitalise the public realm with several small interventions in a climate of tighter budgets.
- Consult residents and businesses: hold public meetings and use the local media to make the case that good design creates economic value. There is a direct link between the quality of street design, management and maintenance and retail rents and house prices in the area.
- Consider what other organisations can do and be prepared to look outside areas directly controlled by the council. For example, you could:
- talk to Network Rail about the impression your railway station makes on visitors and potential investors and employers. Can you persuade them to improve it?
- make the most of funding opportunities for arts and cultural projects. They won’t happen without careful preparation, and they won’t happen overnight, but they can make a major contribution – look at places like Lincoln or Bexhill on Sea.
How do you know if a proposal is any good? Use our seven principles of good urban design to help.
Resources for town centres
An article drawing on CABE’s reviews of 20 supermarket-led large mixed use schemes, with advice on how to arrive at better design.
Guidance from CABE and English Heritage reflecting their experience of evaluating planning applications for tall buildings.
CABE guidance on how to achieve high design standards in historically sensitive contexts.
CABE guide for clients on masterplanning.
CABE research showing that investment in good street design delivers quantifiable financial returns.
Offering everyday examples demonstrating how good design can help create places that work for everyone.
CABE pages showing how the design of places can be accessible for everyone.
Lessons learned from projects reviewed by CABE’s design review panel.
Town centre case studies
Soham: getting a town behind change
Cllr Mark Duckworth, ward member for Soham South, was instrumental in developing a masterplan vision for the Cambridgeshire market town and winning public support for it.
The problem: Soham was a town that had been literally bypassed: by the main road between Newmarket and Ely that goes around it; by the railway line that goes through it without stopping; and by economic trends that left it a market town without a market and with a high street in decline. Yet it was also in a growth area with plans for an extra 1,100 homes by 2025. East Cambridgeshire District Council seemed too remote and unwilling to look at Soham as a town and the town council seemed too parochial to take the lead.
The response: Cllr Duckworth set out to win public support for a look at the whole town, one that built on its strengths of great architecture and period properties and the unique network of commons and green spaces within and around the town. He won support from officers and other members for a masterplan vision. He explains: ‘A masterplan could be construed as just a planning matter whereas vision speaks of getting people behind it. That gave people ownership – the town has their signature on it.’ The district council formed a Soham masterplan vision working party chaired by Cllr Derrick Becket, a planning committee member who had been to school in Soham and is a farmer in a nearby village.
The result: Under the masterplan vision, four new town gateways will establish Soham as a key development opportunity with the potential to play a significant role in the sustainable growth of the district. Plans include a new eastern gateway featuring a new roundabout with direct access to the town centre and a network of integrated green spaces that will retain Soham’s links to its historic landscape setting. Talks are continuing with Network Rail and the Association of Train Operating Companies about re-opening a rail halt or station as part of the new eastern gateway.
Liverpool One: constant consultation
A members working group chaired by the then leader of Liverpool City Council, Cllr Mike Storey, played a crucial role in facilitating the evolution of the Liverpool One development by acting as verbal consultees on all aspects of the masterplan as it developed.
The problem: As early as 1999, a city centre retail study showed that Liverpool a major amount of new retail space. The city had slipped to 17th on the list of the top destinations for shopping in the country and showed no sign of moving up the ranks. Elected members responded positively from the start to the findings in the study and discussions started in earnest to find a way of delivering a vision for improved shopping facilities.
The response: Members rejected the idea of a freestanding mall in favour of the site identified in the study, which lay between the core city centre and the waterfront. The development – originally known as Paradise Street - went to a public inquiry that the city council went on to win. From the beginning there was a members working group of six elected councillors whose comments after consultation on the masterplan would go to the planning committee. The group met frequently, usually every two weeks, with Mike Storey, a longstanding city councillor and leader at the time, acting as chairman.
The result: Liverpool One was groundbreaking in many ways - from the number of separate architects involved in the genesis of individual buildings to the way that the existing built historic environment was literally ‘stitched onto’ the new build. The scheme aimed to re-connect the main shopping area in Liverpool city centre to the waterfront as well as re-landscaping a significant area of underutilised urban space. What emerged was the largest development in Liverpool for 50 years and one that is attracting two million visitors a month.