Experts from across the Liverpool City Region and beyond have today (4/2/21) published their vision for prosperous, futureproof local town centres which they say will help drive the city region’s post-Covid recovery.
The independent Liverpool Town Centres' Commission, which was established by the Liverpool city region combined authority, is the first of its kind in the country. It is made up of leading figures across the business, public and third sectors and chaired by Sarah Longlands, director of the influential IPPR North think tank.
Together with IPPR North, the commissioners undertook research and found the Covid-19 pandemic has had a very severe impact on the Liverpool city region and has accelerated many of the challenges that local town centres have faced in recent years, like retail decline. However, they also found that town centres are vital to communities and the economy.
Their vision for prosperous town centres would deliver places that:
Anchor social, cultural, and economic value - with strategic investment to make them attractive, inviting and accessible for a diverse community. That means clean, safe streets and spaces, a range of shops and services that meet local needs, and opportunities to take part in events and activities that reflect the character and history of the area and its people
Belong to communities - providing a local focus in the city region. Communities need a say in how decisions about their town centre are made, and a stake in the ownership of assets and land. This means local organisations working in partnership to bring communities together through different activities. It also means designing town centres in a way that is inclusive and accessible to everyone
Connect people and places within and beyond the city region. Town centres should be great places to live and to visit, with good-quality housing that helps to build communities and sustainable transport networks that make it easy to get around – locally and across the city region.
To achieve towns that anchor, belong and connect, the commission have set out their recommendations to policymakers, which could ensure that town centres retain a vital role at the heart of their communities. They include:
- Revenue investment that maximises the value of capital projects, to sustain them over time and let them develop and adapt to changing circumstances;
- Encouragement and opportunities for creative and cultural businesses, social enterprise and diverse entrepreneurship, including small scale grants and loans;
- Innovation in funding, ownership, design and the use of space such as encouraging pop-up spaces for community activity, local businesses or public service delivery; and ensuring vacant land is well managed and activated to contribute positively to town centres until its future use is decided;
- Policymaking that puts people first in town centres – for example making health and well-being a key aim of policy, helping people to build skills for jobs in their local area, and giving local people more control over their town centre’s future through co-operative planning.
Sarah Longlands, chair of the Liverpool Town Centres' Commission and director of IPPR North, said: “It’s clear that the pandemic is having a dramatic impact on town centres across the city region. Whilst some towns have fared better as some people have stayed closer to home for shopping and hospitality, many towns are struggling as footfall has disappeared particularly in towns which depend upon tourism, and the way ahead is uncertain.
“The commission’s report is a first step in trying to understand what the pandemic will mean for the future role of towns across the city region. As we try to see a future beyond Covid-19, we must come to terms with how town centres have changed and the challenges and opportunities that this presents for all of us. We hope that this report contributes to that task”.
Liam Kelly, chief executive of Make CIC and member of the Liverpool Town Centres' Commission, said: “Before the pandemic town centres were already failing to keep up with the pace of change in our economy. There has been an overfocus on consumption and an underfocus on production & services. Alongside this they face an ownership crisis with increasing landlord rent expectations and a seemingly inevitable rise in property value pricing out the doers. These factors have caused inertia at a time when we need energy.
“Unexpectedly the pandemic has given some town centres a new sense of purpose, with many people forced to shop local for the first time in years. People have a growing desire to support local business and are asking questions about how ethical and environmental their spending is.
“The renaissance of our region's town’s hangs in the balance. They can be a good news story post pandemic. But this requires us to rethink and reprioritise. Critically, those in power must focus less on the fabric of our towns (buildings) and more on the life blood (people). After all, it’s people who create purpose and define a place; employ others; buy, make and sell things locally.
“This commission has recommended a number of people-focused interventions that can make the difference, such as micro grants & micro finance for ideas. This will provide the energy we need to build back better”.