On Boxing Day last year, the communities secretary Robert Jenrick announced the government’s plan to invest £830m in more than 70 town centres across England. The money, from the Future High Streets Fund, will not only help these areas recover from the coronavirus pandemic, it will support their ambitions for long term growth, a crucial part of ministers’ ‘levelling up’ agenda.
This is most welcome news for the communities affected, and particularly satisfying for those recipients who are members of the Key Cities network, the organisation I chair which seeks to improve the prospects for 25 cities and urban areas across the UK, and is growing all the time.
Working with other cities, towns and organisations across local government and beyond, Key Cities strives to deliver prosperity and a good standard of living and environment for everyone. We actively champion places like Newport, Hull, Gloucester and Norwich, some of our fastest growing local economies, places which – with the right support – can be the engine for the UK’s post-Covid economic recovery.
It is no exaggeration to say that the UK works best when it works together. At Key Cities we share our knowledge and develop solutions to our problems. We aim to become a unified voice and an alliance of shared interests. We want a country where no place and no-one is left behind. We believe everyone in our places has a voice, and we act to ensure that voice is listened to.
I was delighted that six Key Cities members received all or part of the Future High Streets funding they originally bid for. Sunderland is to get a £25m grant that will be spent on projects including the Riverside Sunderland development and remodelling St Mary’s Boulevard to connect the city centre to the riverside. Wolverhampton is to receive nearly £16m to help turn 38 acres west of the city centre into a new urban quarter with hundreds of new homes, a hotel and other amenities, while Portsmouth will work on two key sites, focusing on creating new homes above ground floor uses, as well as developing co-working and community spaces, and public realm improvements. Plymouth, Medway and Carlisle also stand to benefit from significant grant funding.
Being a cheerleader for places like these has never been more vital. With another lockdown upon us, many people will continue to work from home and ‘stay local’ for their everyday needs. This gives the nation’s town centres and high streets an ideal opportunity to rediscover their ability to serve. Town centres have already seen evidence of a renaissance, emerging from recent lockdowns, with shops and other businesses bouncing back and providing for their community. And they can do so again when the current restrictions end.
Long under pressure themselves before the pandemic gripped the day-to-day life of the country, support like the government’s latest round of investment helps local high streets re-establish themselves as the beating heart within their local areas. More importantly, they can evolve, providing a more diverse mix of services and utilities, while creating jobs closer to home. The link between trade and community, business and leisure activities, can become even stronger. It is my hope that the government’s financial backing will help to turn these bold ambitions into a reality.
There is another aspect to the latest investment, namely that thanks to the size of our cities involved and their more integrated governance, it can have a much wider and quicker impact than that applied to their larger counterparts. This means the way funding is applied – and crucially how effective it can be – can act as a blueprint for interventions at a larger scale, positioning the Key Cities network as central to finding new solutions to urban challenges, quickly and efficiently.
Looking to the future, we should also be mindful of the impact that digital technologies can and inevitably will have on our town centres. There are benefits to be gained, not least through the latest high-speed internet connectivity, which can create Smart Places, and help to drive sustainable regeneration and economic development.
Announcing the government’s latest funding round for town centres, Jenrick said he wanted to make them “a more attractive place to work, live and visit”. I couldn’t agree more, so now it’s time to get to work.
Cllr. John Merry CBE, Deputy Mayor, Salford City Council and Key Cities, Chair
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