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EiPL - reimagining our high streets and town centres

There is no doubt that because of the pandemic, reimagining the high street has taken on a new meaning and posed a challenge to the ‘9 – 5 monoculture’. The fourth EiPL session asked how we can re-imagine our high streets and town centres to enable strong communities, prosperous futures and innovative regeneration. Walsall Council’s Head of Highways and Transport, Katie Moreton gives her thoughts on the session.

Working from home, the experience of lockdown and increased interest in our own neighbourhoods, have caused many of us to rethink our work life balance and how we use our local spaces. It has also accelerated the growth of online shopping and seen a greater interest in moving away from urban centres. We don’t yet know which trends are here to stay, but it’s clear that repurposing our high streets offers a massive opportunity to reset.

We began with the different perspectives of three thought leaders. Laura Shoaf, from West Midlands Combined Authority, brought not only a regional viewpoint, but contrasted the UK and American approaches to risk, where they’re not afraid to be bold, fail and try something different. She also outlined what she saw as the three challenge priorities for local authorities: sustainability, digitalisation and individualisation. Tom Bloxhom, from Urban Splash, emphasised bringing back communities, and discussed how to challenge the norms in development. In his view, there has to be a transformation in thinking, with a focus on excellence in design and multi-purpose buildings integrating housing, commercial and retail. Matt Eason from Urban Futures talked about working with local authorities, coming up with innovative new ideas and the importance of bringing communities with you. He described how working with Walsall during the pandemic, they were able to connect with a wider digital audience - including young people - through using Minecraft and augmented reality.

Our case study was my local authority, Walsall. Having volunteered us to be the focus of this session, I was eager to see what would develop. After an introduction giving an overview of Walsall, the existing masterplan, opportunities, challenges and investments, we started on a familiarisation process in four groups. We examined the perceptions of Walsall town centre and its challenges, the little connectivity with the nearby green space of the arboretum, but also the multiple opportunities and projects that we have already identified as key to achieving our ambitions. 

So much has changed in two years. The masterplan document was created before Covid-19 and the declaration of a climate emergency shaped our approaches and ambitions. This was an opportunity to test its relevancy both to these changing contexts and our communities. To be able to re-evaluate our current plan against the themes outlined by each speaker and challenges from colleagues was invaluable and enabled us to develop a clear programme of action. Recognising that there will always be new opportunities to explore, Walsall colleagues embraced the opportunity for peer review, making it clear they were open to questions, challenges and new ideas. People highlighted the positives and didn’t hold back with their criticism, but it was always constructive and made for a really meaningful event. I think when the feedback is shared with the Walsall team, it will be really beneficial. 

The afternoon session split us into two groups. The Discovery workshop evaluated our town centre plan against current best practice thinking, grouped into four key themes: user driven, reinvent purpose, leadership, and strategy and delivery. The Optioning and Recommendations workshop focused on how the current plans for Walsall town centre could be strengthened and how we could deliver against the action plan.

One of the more exciting things for me was pushing the boundaries around what we can deliver and reflecting on some of the Urban Splash developments – are our high streets purely a retail space anymore? Now that people are doing everything online and working from home, people’s homes have become their offices. Do we need that proposed office development or do we need more residential space that is better connected? If our town centres are no longer a place purely for shopping, why aren’t we building on that? They can be places where you live, work and go for your health care. In Walsall, we’ve had a really successful vaccination hub in the shopping centre that has brought people into the town. As people have vaccinations throughout their lives, could we make this permanent and what about other health and wellbeing provision? This isn’t about creating a mini-Birmingham in Walsall, we want to be a destination in our own right, so what’s the best way of doing that?

One area it would be great to explore in more detail is what high streets of the future are going to look like. If we turned current thinking on its head and looked at it from the perspective of retail following people, what do we need to do to with these spaces to bring people in? In highways, we have clear design guidance and safety standards to consider, so we’re quite constrained in that respect, but I don’t want that to blinker us to the art of the possible. Our first thought will always be the cost of maintenance – but maybe it shouldn’t be us funding that? We need to look at different options and ways to make these new ideas work for everybody, so we’re not missing opportunities to genuinely reinvent our high streets, residential areas, and business districts. With climate change and post-Covid, we’re at this pivotal point where we really have an opportunity to mix it up and do things differently.  

Like so many other people, I’ve been reflecting on how the pandemic has changed how I balance life and work. I think these sessions demonstrate the potential for opening up opportunities, especially for women with young families, like myself. Online working has made this programme far more accessible.  It has enabled me to grab an opportunity that I probably wouldn’t have considered if all sessions had been in person and spread across the country. I don’t have to choose between family and succeeding in my career: greater flexibility means I can do both. I will be spending more of my time close to home and I’m not alone in this. Challenging the ‘9 - 5 monoculture’ will change more than our working lives, it will transform our high streets too.

The Excellence in Place Leadership Session 4 summary document is available here.

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