We should aim to create first-rate small towns rather than third-rate versions of bigger neighbourhoods, says Paul Finch
Whatever transpires from Lord Heseltine’s reintroduction of John Prescott’s regional strategy, there are some lessons from last time round that we should have learned. The most obvious is the mistaken destruction of perfectly serviceable housing that would find a ready market given half a chance. That is not to say that some demolition in places was a bad idea, but it required better handling and good substitute proposals to get popular support.
There is a broader issue that deserves more consideration than it sometimes receives - the nature of regeneration proposals in secondary or tertiary towns. This too can be highly sensitive because many local authorities see success as becoming like large towns.
The phrases ‘office-led regeneration’ or ‘retail-led renewal’ are evidence of copycat thinking which is doomed to failure. Aggregate the projections for either and you will find the proposals are predicated on fantasy levels of economic growth.
No politician advocates ‘reduction’ as a regeneration proposition. Yet the idea of what one might call ‘diet urbanism’ is not unknown in Europe; indeed in Germany it has become something of a fashion, informing at least two German pavilions at the Venice Biennale over the last decade. Like us, Germany has post-industrial towns. It is learning to live with them.
Here, it is unusual to find renewal strategies based on, for example, the idea that the best thing a town could become would be an ideal place to live, but with the understanding that most of the population would commute rather than work in the town itself.
The implications of such an approach are far from negative from a design point of view, since the creation of a first-class commuter town presents its own design challenges and opportunities. For one thing, the nature of the commuting lifestyle needs to be analysed and understood so that the return from work in the evening is as pleasant as possible. The railway station, for example, needs to be well maintained and its environs properly paved and landscaped, with decent parking and pick-up/drop-off points properly arranged. This happens rarely, for reasons that are anyone’s guess.
The same is true of the retail experience in smaller towns. Sadly, too many comprise boarded-up shops and a dismal urban experience at every level. The penny seems not to have dropped: when you are a smaller town you may have to work harder at attracting locals to keep visiting. Too often, the same local authority can simultaneously promote its traditional centre while giving permission to edge-of-town or out-of-town centres, despite the Mary Portas review.
And why do we continue to penalise car-driving shoppers who would be prepared to go to traditional centres - but get fed up with filthy old multi-storey car parks or no car parking at all - with zealous traffic wardens who may as well carry sandwich boards saying ‘Why don’t you go somewhere else?’.
From a retail perspective, small towns are undergoing seismic change given internet shopping and the long-term effect of pressure on high streets, including the government’s decision to postpone a rating revaluation which would have benefited northern towns in particular. Any new model will need to be based on character, identity and convenience.
The objective should be to create first-rate small towns rather than third-rate versions of bigger neighbours. Bring back - or upgrade - markets and market halls; promote local produce and speciality shops; keep the town hall, the library, the swimming pool and the police station as integral parts of the town centre offer. This can, of course, be designed.
Self-confidence and identity are key to the renewal of our blighted urban centres