A task force set up to help reverse the fortunes of struggling town centres across the region has undertaken a fact-finding tour to see first-hand some of the challenges and opportunities high streets are facing.
The task force, set up by Mayor of the West Midlands Andy Street and the West Midlands Combined Authority’s (WMCA) Housing and Land Board, has already vowed to use radical thinking and bold new ideas to address the issue of declining centres.
The group, made up of prominent people from the worlds of retail, development, finance, housing, education and Government spent the day visiting five town centres - Bilston in Wolverhampton, St Thomas Quarter in Dudley, Bordesley Green in Birmingham, St Matthews Quarter in Walsall and West Bromwich (East) in Sandwell.
L-R Ed Watson from Arup, WMCA design lead Louise Wyman, taskforce chair Jon Bramwell, director of urban planning at the University of Birmingham Austin Barber, and WMCA head of policy for housing and regeneration Patricia Willoughby
All five have been chosen by their local councils to pilot exciting new investment and regeneration plans, backed by £20m from the WMCA.
The task force tour follows the group’s first meeting last month at which members expressed an urgent need to visit the five town centres ahead of working with local councils on their investment and regeneration plans.
Chair of the task force, Jon Bramwell, a managing director at HSBC UK Commercial Banking, said: “It is essential that we understand what’s important to local people and businesses.
“The tour helped us get under the skin of each town, leaving us better placed to help determine what action is needed to inject new energy into these areas.
“Each town centre is unique and the regeneration plans being drawn up by their councils will need to be tailored to their individual needs.
“We want local communities to become involved by giving their views and working with us.”
The aim of the task force, which also includes Andy Street, Mayor of the West Midlands and former managing director of John Lewis, is to help local councils rejuvenate town centres that have suffered in recent years.
Cllr Mike Bird, leader of Walsall Council and the WMCA’s portfolio lead for housing and regeneration, added: “This is a watershed moment for town centres and it’s clear that innovative action needs to be taken to ensure we continue to have vibrant places at the heart of our communities in the future.
“This fact-finding tour reflects our determination to tackle this issue and I would like to thank the highly credible business, community and public sector leaders for giving up their whole day to explore the five towns.
“Not only has it enabled them to offer their practical advice on ways to help transform these locations but also the chance to meet passionate local advocates and the regional team driving this. Once again it shows how the West Midlands is leading the national agenda on the issue of town centres.”
The decline of town centres often follows a downturn in footfall as consumers turn to out-of-town outlets and online shopping.
High streets have also been hit by a spate of recent big-name store closures leaving vacant units in key locations as a visible sign of decline.
The task force will work with the five councils and other community groups over the coming weeks, offering expert support and guidance.
It will aim to strike a balance between preparing the ground for longer term projects and taking early action to provide tangible evidence that positive change can be achieved quickly.
The first five town centres to receive support from the WMCA were nominated by their local councils and the regeneration plans for each of them will be launched later this year.
The combined authority will act as a catalyst to help speed up and support delivery of the town centre plans and ideas, for example by using its new Housing and Land funds to open up new development opportunities.
Further town centres will be eligible for a second wave of support later in the year, building on the experience from the first wave of centres.
West Midlands councils have also submitted bids to the Government’s nationwide £675m Future High Streets Fund, in addition to the £20m already made available by the WMCA.
The support for town centres is part of the WMCA’s wider commitment to focus regeneration efforts and housing delivery on existing urban areas and brownfield land.