With lockdown restrictions continuing to hit the region’s high streets, there was brighter news for West Bromwich today as work got underway on a major town centre regeneration scheme.
Towns across the West Midlands, many of which were already struggling from changing shopping habits before the pandemic, have seen footfall drop by more than 30% compared to last year while store closures nationwide are at a record high.
Yet despite the unprecedented crisis, an important investment programme agreed by the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) and Sandwell Council is pressing ahead, kickstarting plans to revitalise the centre of West Bromwich.
Heavy demolition machinery has begun tearing down the 1970’s-built Queen's Square multi-storey car park in Bull Street to make way for a modern mix of new homes, leisure and retail facilities.
The combined authority has worked closely with Sandwell Council, one of 18 partner local authorities in the WMCA, to help make the regeneration scheme possible by providing funding to cover the demolition costs.
Mayor of the West Midlands Andy Street, who chairs the WMCA, said “Even before Coronavirus struck, high streets were struggling to keep up with changing shopping habits and the fast rise of online retailers. The pandemic and subsequent lockdown and restrictions has only served to exasperate that, and it is clear a major re-think is needed.
“I still firmly believe that town centres and high streets can be the beating heart of communities once again, but they need to move away from being so retail-focused and look to diversify their offering. That means more homes, public services, offices, and start-up spaces, combined with better transport links and safety measures.
“Here at the WMCA we are trying to help facilitate that change through our town centre taskforce, and the demolition of Bull Street car park to make way for a mix of new homes, leisure and retail is a prime example of what we are trying to achieve.
“Work such as this also helps to create and protect local jobs at what is a very challenging time economically due to Coronavirus.”
Deputy Leader of Sandwell Council, Cllr Maria Crompton, said: “Here in Sandwell, as all over the country, COVID-19 has disrupted so much and put so many demands on our resources that authorities have had to put important work on hold.
“But we are still pressing ahead with our key projects despite that – we still have to look to the future, especially for our young people.
“Creating better economic prospects is vital and this regeneration and development will be home to a thriving new residential and business community in the heart of town, with more greenery and safe open spaces.
“It will bring local jobs and opportunities – and I look forward to working together on many more projects across the borough.”
West Bromwich is one of five town centres across the West Midlands that have been put forward by their local councils for WMCA priority funding for regeneration schemes, reflecting the town’s broader importance to the wider regional economy. The other four town centres are Bordesley Green, Bilston, Dudley and Walsall.
Last year the WMCA also set up a Regional Town Centre Taskforce made up of prominent people from the worlds of retail, development, finance, housing, education and Government to work with local councils on moving forward redevelopment plans for town centres.
Taskforce chair, Jon Bramwell, a managing director at HSBC Commercial Banking, said: “At such a difficult time it’s extremely encouraging to see this redevelopment get underway.
“The Taskforce was set up for exactly this reason – to work closely with local authorities to unlock investment and guide changes that can drive economic growth and improve the quality of life for local people.
“Such schemes were much-needed before the pandemic and are even more vital now.”