Our future: towns and cities

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Some of you may have been watching the BBC’s programme on the regeneration of Manchester (Manctopia) with a mixture of horror and fascination. Here on this side of the Pennines I think we can do things better, in a way that includes local people and is fair to all.

Our towns and city centres are facing a major crisis. Although the long-term impact of coronavirus on the way we live, work and travel is unclear, dramatic changes have already been forced on our urban high streets. We’re living through one of the most challenging economic and social periods since the Second World War and our councils, businesses and community groups need to find new ways to work together to re-shape our towns and city centres and deliver sustainable and positive changes that will bring benefit to all our local communities.

Even before the Covid-19 crisis, online shopping had placed significant pressure on the high street and driven up the use of out-of-town shopping centres for groceries and essentials. Clearly, the shift in the way we live, work and play has been accelerated by the lockdown, and even once-thriving commercial centres such as Leeds are now struggling with so many people working from home.

We need some very focused and bold interventions to revitalise and re-purpose our urban centres. They can’t become ghettos with poor living conditions and polluted streets, and with very little to stimulate the young people and families who live in or near those centres. The challenge for local and regional politicians and planners is to change their working practices so that they are more responsive to the necessary pace of change. This requires a more agile approach, where funding is sourced from government pots such as the Brownfield Regeneration Fund or the Towns Fund to test and refine lots of low-cost interventions, to regenerate our deserted urban areas, rather than investing everything in a small number of big glossy projects that only create wealth for large property developers.

Admittedly, these changing working practices aren’t easy to do, especially for a sector that is used to top-down planning and to managing risk in everything that it does. But the best way to mitigate against that risk is to partner with local businesses and residents and enable them to play a greater role in the design and experimentation process that is needed within our towns.

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Here in Huddersfield, our business improvement district manager has been convening working groups made up of citizens, local businesses, and local authority representatives. This has already delivered some simple but effective changes. New wall art is generating conversations within the town, and action is being taken to implement an idea to turn disused spaces into urban allotments so that local cafes can grow their own food in the town.

These small incremental changes build confidence among residents for bigger projects such as regenerating a disused alleyway into an outdoor, covid-safe space with a bar, an open-air cinema, and a live music stage.

I hope that our council, other councils, and eventually our metropolitan mayor will have the confidence to adopt a similar approach, funding small pilot projects, reviewing the evidence, talking to residents and using that information to generate spatial strategy that delivers urban spaces and transport systems that respond to our new situation. I hope that they will see the changing shape of urban centres as an opportunity and a positive challenge to overcome – not just as a risk or a problem – because the repurposing of offices and greater use of home working provides an enormous opportunity for people to reconnect with their local community and create a healthier and better society.

You only need to look at the way that shopping centre operators are already taking the opportunity to transform retail spaces into experience spaces – for eating, leisure activities and sports – to see how quickly the private sector can respond to change. And where the private sector cannot do it, local authorities will need to step in and re-use any derelict spaces. High streets could be turned into high-quality residential accommodation with affordable homes for our key workers and families as part of the mix. Given our desire for a healthier society, creating more densely populated and energy efficient housing alongside urban sport and recreation spaces – five-a-side football pitches, urban allotments and play areas – would be a sustainable way to bring life back into town and city centres.

Parents who work from home can plan new ways of getting children to school that do not contribute to the daily traffic jam, which would release road capacity for parents who are keyworkers. And over time, they might even see the opportunity to become involved in local schools or to mentor young people. Community buildings such as leisure centres or libraries could drive up footfall by creating shared workspaces where freelancers can work and exercise.

All of this will provide new opportunities to renew those connections between our everyday lives and the lives and challenges of the wider community around us. By commuting less, people will spend more time on the way to school, in a leisure centre or at a council-run building, helping to form a better understanding of the way in which these vital services operate, their funding constraints and how they contribute to the health of our communities. And what better way for councils to form partnerships with business than by creating hot-desk spaces within their existing civic offices. In this way, council officers can mingle with and get to understand how small businesses operate and how they deliver for local people.

The Covid-19 health crisis has not yet gone away, but already it is bringing about a seismic change in the way that we live and work. Change is happening now, and politicians and business leaders in West Yorkshire need to come together to harness the innovation and ingenuity of our people, and to grab this opportunity to shape our own destiny.

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