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Could heritage help spark a resurgence of our town & city centres?

10 May 2021
UK

Matthew Mckeague, Chief Executive

The recent local elections and Queen’s Speech have brought renewed focus on the questions around the Government’s ‘Levelling Up’ agenda, the future of the high street and how we make our towns and cities more liveable. At the AHF, we see heritage as a central thread running through these debates – whether it’s in terms of what people want to see protected or enhanced in their local area, or as the core of the civic pride of place. A couple of weeks ago, we convened a group of experts in place, heritage, social enterprise and a variety of funders to look at the particular role heritage assets and not for profit organisations can play in the complex mix of issues and challenges facing the high street.

The event included a thought-provoking conversation between Liz Peace, AHF’s Chair, and Martin Sandbu, the Financial Times’ European Economics Commentator and author of the excellent recent book, ‘The Economics of Belonging’. Martin’s book recommends a number of policies and strategies for addressing the challenges of so-called ‘left behind’, levelling up, ‘insert preferred shorthand for a myriad of individual places’ here. Some of the policy prescriptions in the ‘Economics of Belonging’ are centred around the concept of a ‘strategy of attraction’, focused on connectivity, attracting high quality employment and ensuring that spending can be maintained within local economies. A further feature is the vital importance of ‘social infrastructure’ – libraries, pubs, high streets and other key facilities - and the role of arts and culture.

Economically deprived places often have a wealth of well-loved historic assets that house important local services and institutions. Their continuing existence or regeneration should be the foundation of any local levelling up plan - and it is good to see that the new Levelling Up Fund places emphasis on these assets. There is also added advantage in investing in historic building reuse and heritage assets, in that they tend to be well loved by existing residents and can be a distinctive pull for new people and investment. It’s also a sustainable way to reuse our existing assets.

But what to do about town centres and high streets where private sector investment is weak or where there are not the skills or financial incentives to tackle problematic, complex heritage assets? In places like Great Yarmouth or Bacup, there are often low levels of investment from the private sector, as land and property values do not incentivize investment. Any investment that is forthcoming, can also be typically short term in its approach. There are also problematic building owners that either cannot, or will not, develop key buildings within a town centre; something that can be hugely frustrating for local communities and which feeds feelings of powerlessness. How to deal with these problems? That is where our Heritage Development Trust (HDT) model can help.

Great Yarmouth Preservation Trust, a pilot Heritage Development Trust is one example. It is a social enterprise property developer – one less focused on immediate financial return - that raises finance from public sources and charitable foundations, helps orchestrate a mix of uses and local services - from affordable housing to workspace for SMEs to culture and arts – and is focused on the long-term future of the town. In King Street, where it has played a significant role and where it owns a number of buildings, the vacancy rate has gone from 80% to around 15%. We need more organisations like this, and the ones we do have need more investment, both in terms of capital funding but equally crucially in terms of pump priming revenue support (too often in short supply). That is an ask we want to take to partners over the coming months.

The answers to the challenges facing our town centres are often structural and go well beyond facilitating a change of one retail use to another. Arguably, clone towns are no longer the problem. And the questions being asked will not be answered by the public or private sector alone - but clearly they have a huge role to play. An entrepreneurial, not for profit Heritage Development Trust (similar to the community trusts called for in the latest Grimsey Review ) can be one significant part of the solution facing many town centres: adept at working alongside public and private sectors, whilst building up, over time, an increasing element of community ownership and influence.

We can endlessly debate how and why our town centres have gotten to the point they are at. As well as the competition from online retail, funding (or lack of it) for local government has also played a role. Where Heritage Development Trusts are currently operating, an interventionist and partnership minded local authority is often actively working alongside them, helping to fill gaps in finance here, adding muscle and weight with compulsory purchases there. This type of work cannot be managed or overseen from SW1. Similarly, the opportunities many HDTs are responding to – whether more people working from home as a result of COVID-19 or an appetite from communities to take over a particular asset – have to be driven and delivered by responsive and imaginative local enterprises.

The next few years are critical to the future of the high street and town centres. We have lots of ideas for what the future can look like, it is a question of how we get there. The Heritage Development Trust model is one that can help drive a new form of regeneration on the high street, one with the past and future working closely together.