Government funding is unlikely to be a silver bullet that will turn our high streets around
The plight of high streets across the country is no secret and there has been no short of airtime given to big-name store closures, shuttered shops and the future face of town centres.
The latest coverage of the fightback to revive town centre fortunes came this week with the announcement of an additional 50 towns that will benefit from the £1 billion Future High Streets Fund that promises to drive forward local growth and support local authorities in the development of detailed projects. Despite the level of funding on offer, the regional imbalance in successful bids shows only Thurrock, Tendring, Harlow and Huntingdonshire as the only successful authorities in the eastern region with plans to transform their town centres in Grays, Clacton, Harlow and St Neots respectively.
Although other eastern authorities such as Basildon and Southend were unsuccessful in their bids, the two authorities are moving forward full steam ahead with their proposals to regenerate their town centres. Basildon recently approved plans to borrow £100m to regenerate its town centres and Southend is moving forward with the regeneration of the Queensway Estate. Their south Essex neighbour in Thurrock have also recently announced the next steps to create a modern 21st century town centre in Lakeside, despite the regeneration of the civic offices in Grays proving a thorny political issue.
A common theme of these visions for the future of town centres is the plan to deliver a large number of residential units, to help meet housing targets and sustain future high street shops.
However, the promise of a slice of government funding does tackle one of the biggest obstacles to reviving our town centres – land ownership. This is particularly problematic in areas like new towns where 60s and 70s town centres have aged to the point where only a root and branch wholesale regeneration will turn around the area’s fortunes. But despite the need for regeneration, it is not uncommon for town centres to have multiple, even tens of owners, all with different interests and appetites for regeneration.
So, while the Future High Streets Fund and other financial incentives may be a welcome boost to the hopes for a brighter future for town centres, there are still many hurdles to clear to deliver a successful regeneration.