Local authority assets can play a major part in revitalising the UK's ailing town centres, but this is being overlooked in current national policy, according to a report published today by the Association for Public Service Excellence (APSE).
The report, The role and value of local authority assets in town centres, is based on work for APSE by the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES), which demonstrates the strategic, place-making, economic, social and environmental benefits local government assets bring to town centres. It contains practical tools for measuring and maximising the potential of local authority assets to help address the crisis facing town centres and sets out recommendations for action at a national and local level.
Local authorities are responsible for a diverse range of assets – including theatres, cinemas, airports, and sports stadia as well as civic centres, schools, parks, care homes and leisure centres – with local authority assets in England alone worth £250bn. Yet, national policy on town centres has marginalised local government, placed too much emphasis on retail and encouraged councils to dispose of assets, according to the report.
'Local authorities are stewards of their localities, have an important economic development remit and planning powers as well as a diverse asset base. While there is a clear need to drive efficiency in the use of all public assets, it makes financial sense to ensure assets that give town centres a focal point, lever in resources and create strong multiplier effects in local economies achieve their full potential,' said Paul O'Brien, chief executive of APSE.
'We must move on from simplicities, where town centres are perceived as being all about retail. The way to solve the problems of our high streets and our town centres, is to nurture and respect all of social, public, and commercial elements. This report shows that local authorities are key drivers, and that the assets they own are vital as economic, social, environmental and cultural components of town centres,' Neil McInroy, chief executive of CLES, commented.
The recession and competition from out of town malls have resulted in closed down businesses, run down high streets and the proliferation of charity shops and betting offices, creating a spiral of decay. These issues have been examined in the Portas review in England and separate reviews in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. The Grimsey Review and the Distressed Town Centre Property Task Force have highlighted limitations with current approaches to town centre problems.
The new APSE and CLES report draws on survey and case evidence to show the heritage, architectural and cultural significance of council assets for town centres, as well as their strategic, economic and social value. Examples of the contribution of local authority assets to town and city centres featured include:
Ballymena - Council owned assets, including a town hall, county hall and two major arts and cultural venues, are a key aspect of the town's economic regeneration, resulting in a 12% increase in tourist trips over two years. With 67% of council staff resident in the town, £6.1m in net wages provides a massive input to the local economy.
Neath Port Talbot - Employees based in the council's civic centre spend £4.4m in the town centre annually. Local authority assets attracted almost 100,000 visitors in a single year. Council grants to businesses are giving shopfronts a face-lift and attracting further investment.
Southampton - The city council has used its buildings for sustainable energy projects as part of a successful green city strategy. Every £1 spent on public realm improvements has prompted £5 investment and 1,200 jobs have been created as a result.
West Dunbartonshire - The potential relocation of civic facilities is driving ambitious town centre regeneration plans and local authority assets are being used to help develop residents' skills and employability.
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