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The pandemic has added to the challenges town centres face making them a major priority for action
Town centres are at the heart of Welsh life and high street sustainability requires joined up delivery, brave decision-making, and ambitious leadership.
The challenges facing many town centres in Wales are similar to the regeneration of 1945 post-War Britain.
Between 1950 and 1980 local authorities prioritised regeneration of town centres creating new and greater retail space. However, past policy choices, changing consumer expectations and technological advances are now adversely affecting many Welsh town centres. And the pandemic has now added to these problems.
COVID-19 created challenges for local government and central government, but overall, they’ve responded well to keep people safe and businesses working. However, 1 in 7 shops on Welsh high streets are now empty, despite Welsh Government investing and levering in £892.6m in the last 7 years. Local authorities don’t have the capacity to respond to this situation and are not always using the powers they have to help regenerate towns.
Our review found that there’s optimism for the future of town centres, but to be successful councils must focus on the four I’s (Intention, Involvement, Informed, Intervention) that we discuss in our report. In addition, the Welsh Government have prioritised town centre regeneration going forward through a national programme of change.
Whilst there are many stakeholders who have a role in regenerating towns centres, local authorities are key. Their wide range of statutory powers can determine the shape and environment of town centres from planning and transport, to housing and tourism, for example. To deliver the best local outcomes policies and joint working need to be aligned and integrated, and resources prioritised on town centres.
We recommend that Welsh Government works with local authorities to review and address transport challenges facing town centres and suggest they consolidate funding to reduce bureaucracy.
For local authorities, we recommend that they use their existing powers and resources available, and work in collaboration with other councils, to achieve the best possible outcome for town centres. We also recommend that local authorities use our regeneration tool to self-assess their current approaches and identify improvements.
Rapid change is taking place in our town centres and the full impact of COVID-19 is yet to be felt. Priorities for action that appeared reasonable 18 months ago no longer reflect the changes that are taking place and the challenges that now need to be addressed.
National and local government need to deliver integrated solutions, make brave decisions and provide bold, ambitious leadership if we are to address the challenges facing our town centres.