Renewing town centres

renewingTownCentre1

agendaNi looks at what the Social Development Committee recommends for improving town centres across the province.

As more and more shops are being fronted with wooden boards or shutters the Social Development Committee has recommended how towns across the province could be better served.

The flagship recommendation points to a following in the Scotland’s footsteps in establishing a town centre regeneration fund.

Chiefly it would be in place to counter any perceived geographical bias in allocating funding, which the committee says it was “concerned” to hear about in evidence submitted to it.

Committee Chairman Simon Hamilton told agendaNi that while Belfast and Derry are principally doing well out of town centre regeneration, it is not the same across the board. The regeneration fund would be a central pot of re-profiled DSD current expenditure. This would not be new money.

Regeneration projects are normally funded by the private sector, though the department does provide the funding for ‘masterplanning’ work.

To date, DSD believes that for regeneration to be a success across the province, the private sector will need to be involved, putting the emphasis on proving commercial viability.

The Scottish Government says that the fund is in place there as a contributor to economic growth. It states that town centres are central to employment and for services, and are therefore eligible for support throughout more challenging economic times.

For the year 2009-2010, the Government made available £60 million.

While new councils will be empowered in 2011, town centre regeneration is not one of the powers ‘devolved’ to them. The committee believes towns would be best served if those powers were transferred. Within the new councils there would also be new town centre partnership bodies.

Powers would also be given to councils for managing utility companies’ maintenance so as to minimise disruption to both the social and economic sides to a town centre.

Aesthetically, it is also suggested that the department formulates its town centre regeneration policies to include the development, where they exist, of rivers, open spaces and social amenities.

One notable omission from the report is support for the living over the shops (LOTS) scheme.

Hamilton admits that the scheme would be an effective way of delivering more vibrant town centres. “If there are more people living there, there’s going to use the services there,” he says, though it was not included in the recommendations.

“While the department would set policy, the delivery of any strategy should be done locally.”

That might also help in building a night time economy in towns across Northern Ireland. Before Hamilton’s time as Chair, the committee visited Boston and Rhode Island, which he is reliably informed provided some “very, very good examples of town centre regeneration”, such as shop frontage schemes, and some of the recommendations stem for that.

Pedestrianisation also features in the report. The committee recommends that the DSD, with others with responsibility, should clarify roles in relation to pedestrian zones. Indeed it also cites problems which the visually impaired may face in such areas.

A topical issue for most towns across the province is car parking and it is recommended that all charges should be developed “in sympathy” with other activities.

Out-of-town shopping centres should be subject to more stringent conditions than central or edge-of-town developments. The economic impacts should be paramount, along with any potential consequences for local retailers already in the area, the report says.

Hamilton believes the bottom line is that “the first port of call ought to be the town centre or the edge of towns”, but he does see positives in the more spacious developments that have come up, for example, at Knocknagony and Sprucefield.

Where there are edge-of- or out-of-town developments there should be good linkages in terms of public transport, roads and the general public realm. He also accepts the positives that out-oftown developments can have. “They clearly bring an increase in footfall and the trick”, he suggests, “is linking that into the town centre”.

Spending money on linking the edge of towns to their centres can be expensive and retail developments between the two can provide a natural linkage, with the bill often footed by private developers. Indeed, a “natural linkage”, he contends may not separate the two areas out, but could better link them.

“We would see the two as competitors but as complementary,” he adds.

With results very much on a ‘must win’ basis, the committee believes that key performance indicators (KPI) should be put in place to measure progress. Any further policies drawn up by the department should also be subject to KPIs.

While the committee has recommended that a series of key performance indicators should be brought in, Hamilton concedes that “any target would be good at this stage”, given that there is no strategy in place at the moment, though agendaNi understands that one is forthcoming, which began with a DSD guidance paper in 2007 called ‘Vital & Viable’.

The indicators would be assessed in different ways but he accepts individual areas would be hard to assess spe cific ally, saying “it wou ld be very difficult to determine how much a piece of street furniture brings to that street”. He does, howe ver, still b eliev e tha t any targets would be to the benefit of town cen tres i n the long term giv en that “ impro ving town c en tres will improv e attraction” overall.

Hamilton envisages the new councils very much taking the lead as they are closest to town centres: “While the department would set policy, the deli very of any strategy should be done locally.”

Taking some of the regeneration load from the public sector, the committee also r ecommended busin ess improv eme nt di stric ts or tow n centre m an ageme nt bodies. In whichever form, these would be tasked with helping retailers improve shop frontage and giving support for evening economy opportunities.

Statutory bodies can only do so much and Hamilton point s out th at t hose responsibilities also rest with retai ler s based in the town centres. Presently, though, he accepts that most busines sp eople are preoccupie d with making their own business survive and a lot of the strategic side of that would fall to local chambers of commerce or retail and trade associations. That could be a long-term project.

Having a rounded level of involvement is paramount for the success of any of the co m m i ttee’s re commendations , he concludes.

Margaret Ritchie plans to respond to the co m m i ttee bu t i s known to broadly welcome the report and the DSD has said that some of the recommendations had already been put in place throughout the rev i ew. A bro ad strate gic poli cy framework for urban regeneration and community development is also in the pipeline.

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