Town and city centres are infrastructure. The latest research from @centreforcities, a fantastic think tank for those unaware of their work, builds on this narrative, calling for a £5bn ‘Productivity Fund’ and lobbying Government to recognise cities as an asset class.
There is opportunity for our towns and cities. High streets are suffering, and are disproportionally affected by Covid-19. But as we reflect on home working, flexibility, provenance of our supply chains and localism, it would seem to follow that local centres are well-placed for recovery. But they will need help and this needs to come from a mixture of grants, investment and genuine community support.
Personally, I see there being some trends and actions that we can take to use those trends to restart the economy from the ground up:
- We have proven that flexible working works, but there are also issues around the pervasion of work life into home life and the subsequent impact on well-being. Touchdown workspaces, closer to our homes and transport hubs, could resolve this;
- Short term, this could be facilitated by relaxation of the use classes order on high streets. What about removing it for commercial spaces on high streets for up to five years? This would allow proof of concept for new, innovative uses;
- Consolidate commercial cores and take advantage of depressed values. Most towns and cities suffer from a historic ‘toffee effect’: too much sprawl of commercial uses which means none are particularly successful. Why not relax planning restrictions in secondary and tertiary areas, install a presumption in favour of residential and encourage commercial uses to a traditional core?
- This migration would be facilitated by the recent, and ongoing, collapse in rents which has made traditional commercial cores affordable for previously peripheral occupiers. Councils will play a major part both as investors and as the local planning authority (see my colleague, Paul Burley’s comments relating to new Local Plans).
These relatively small interventions could leverage the inevitable move towards flexible working, and capitalise on that to deliver housing and right-size commercial town centres whilst consolidating non-residential uses and promoting local economic growth.
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The Government should treat city centres as an asset class, in the same way, that roads and rail are, and create a ‘City Centre Productivity Fund’