What is the future of our Town Centres?

I remember that when I first arrived in Welwyn Garden City, I was truly amazed with its beauty. The Town Centre looked quite special; everything felt right, “organised” and unique. A few years later, I discovered the idea of the Garden City Movement, which for more than 100 years now, formed and shaped the town and its social, economic and architectural development.

First of all, what is the Garden City Movement? The Garden City Movement is a town-planning idea that sought to marry the best of town and country in new urban development. It proved highly influential in suburban design and new town planning through the twentieth century. For me, most importantly, Garden Cities contains proportionate areas of residences, industry, and agriculture. The founder of Welwyn Garden City, Ebenzer Howard, introduced the idea in 1898, which was a way to capture the primary benefits of the countryside and the city while avoiding the disadvantages presented by both. Clearly, this much needed and important idea, due to socio-economic changes, had to be reshaped over the years.

A lot has changed in recent years, hasn’t it? The pandemic, shopping, access to different products and services online, and more recently the cost of living crisis, mean that our Town Centres are in many cases disappearing. Over the Bank Holiday Weekend, I visited Cambridge; a globally known city and I was also quite surprised to see a number of empty units around the Town Centre.

In many ways, when I decided to re-stand in the most recent Local Elections, I was keen to represent the Handside Ward, which includes the Town Centre. Since May, I’ve had a number of meetings with residents, businesses and local partners to understand a bit better how to improve the business model of our Town Centre. Each meeting was useful and informative. There is a lot to consider: parking arrangements, “Town Centre incentives”, understanding the offer of our competitors, business rates, the composition of Town Centre BID’s (Business Improvement Districts), greater involvement of the community groups and local organisations. Often, the complexity of relationships, lack of communication or even lack of willingness to cooperate mean that our Town Centres stagnated.

So what is the solution? I don’t think that anyone has a magic wand. I also think that the old days of key national retailers, which for many years were a visible part of our High Streets, will not return. This is why we need to find new and innovative ways to ensure that our Town Centres are vibrant, accessible and engaging.

I have recently come across a business model, which already exists across the US. The Community Improvement District (CID) gives a real economic boost to our struggling and “clone-like” Town Centres. However, if we want this to succeed, we must ensure that the voice of the local community is an integral part of the decision making. I find it staggering that in so many places across the country, our Town Centres are owned by big national or international funds or companies, which have no interest in the regeneration of our Town Centres. I am pleased that CID is already being developed in parts in London, for example in Wood Green. I think that this arrangement will give residents a real sense of belonging and increase people’s confidence. Moreover, this concept will help to enhance partnership working between local partners and agencies. The key decisions will be made “closer to home” and it will be our local community, who will be part of the planning and decision making process. I absolutely agree that most of our Town Centres have to re-discover its purpose and identity. I know that the road ahead might be hard and bumpy, however this hugely important learning process might provide several solutions to a national decline of our High Streets. It has never been more important, particularly now when the public purse is so stretched, to work together and face this new and challenging reality.

* Michal Siewniak is a Lib Dem activist and councillor for Handside ward, Welwyn Hatfield.

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One Comment

  • Jenny Barnes 17th Jun '22 - 9:10am

    I’m not convinced that process changes are really what’s required. With the ongoing reductions in most peoples income, esp with the supply side shocks on essentials like fuel and food, discretionary spending is bound to take a big hit. A lot of that would be to High St. shops & hospitality. Eating out and even takeaways is likely to become a very occasional luxury for most; drinking at home perhaps with some mates to watch the football is cheaper than the pub, and new clothes can wait. What might survive in the High St is food shopping – locally we have a butcher and greengrocer as well as 2 big supermarkets- and places for people to work remotely. Likely takeaway coffee would survive too! And of course a lot of shopping is now on-line.

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