Excellence in developing COVID-19 recovery plans
This briefing is written to guide councils and their partners - BIDs, civic groups, business communities and others – that are currently engaged in the process of developing a COVID-19 business recovery plan. The recovery plan is part of a range of measures encouraged by the £50m Reopening High Streets Safely Fund, launched in England for local authorities.
This article has been created by independent experts on behalf of the High Streets Task Force. It is not intended as Government guidance and we have not sought approval for it to be so.
Reopening High Streets Safely Fund
The Reopening High Streets Safely Fund was launched by MHCLG on 24 May 2020 and awards a share of a total of £50m ERDF funding to Local Authorities across England on a per capita basis. The purpose of the grant is to help councils introduce a range of measures designed to help restart the local economy in their towns and cities.
This briefing is written to guide councils and their partners - BIDs, civic groups, business communities and others – that are currently engaged in the process of developing a COVID-19 business recovery plan. The plan is the first of four fundable activities:
- Support to develop an action plan for how the local authority may begin to safely reopen their local economies
- Communications and public information activity to ensure that reopening of local economies can be managed successfully and safely
- Business-facing awareness raising activities to ensure that reopening of local economies can be managed successfully and safely
- Temporary public realm changes to ensure that reopening of local economies can be managed successfully and safely
This guide introduces the general principles covering the development of the plan itself, but plans will likely include elements of the other three. Further briefings will be produced which provide guidance on achieving excellence in the other three fundable activities, with support webinars available for each of them on the High Streets Task Force resource site.
Developing COVID19 recovery plans
The fund guidance produced by MHCLG refers to the High Street Task Force’s COVID Recovery Framework as an helpful guide to setting out your plan. Developed by the lead body for the High Streets Task Force, the Institute for Place Management, this framework has been widely adopted by local authorities in the country as a basis for planning the recovery.
While the MHCLG guidance is not explicit that every local authority must develop a plan, it is advisable to do so, and many Councils are working on this now. Recovery plans will need to be widely owned, collaborative and realistic, setting out clearly the steps all partners will take to support businesses back into operation.
Given the structural concerns with our high streets that predated COVID19, plans will need to recognise that a return to how things were before is neither possible nor desirable. In many instances, councils and their partners will need to develop a new vision for their town centres and work will have to be done to encourage widescale buy-in among the business and resident community.
Given the complexity of the recovery process and the need to coordinate partners and communicate its aims, your plan should be developed carefully and reflect six key principles.
Six principles for excellence in COVID19 Recovery Plans
Plans are likely to be as unique as the places they refer to, and for this reason it is not possible to be prescriptive about what goes in them. The High Streets Task Force Recovery Framework is clear that the elements of action that take place in each phase of recovery should be developed according to specific local need.
Equally the phases themselves are fluid. The reintroduction of lockdown in the event of a second wave could return town centres to the ‘pre-recovery’ or even ‘crisis’ phase where it had previously reached ‘recovery’. Town centres will need to be flexible to manage this.
The key to this in the context of the plan is adaptability. Plans will need to be able to change where approaches are tried and do not work. Plans should be living documents, available for public scrutiny and critique. Those partners that are responsible for delivering them should be sensitive to the need to change and there should be a mechanism built into the governance structure which controls the adaptation process.
Norwich’s Recovery Plan, which adapts the Task Force framework, is a living plan. Its innovative use of ‘Plan Ahead Teams’ are a good example of built-in adaptability. This plan also aligns well with government policy and phraseology.
Co-design and collaboration
The plan development and delivery process should be an opportunity to build capacity and partnerships in your area. This means accepting that no plan can be deliverable without local buy-in, and local buy-in is impossible without co-design.
The High Streets Task Force site includes resources aimed at place managers and Councils which advise on how to involve communities in the process of planning and delivery. For example, a report based on Carnegie UK Trust’s Talk of the Town project highlights that places with clear narratives from communities recover more effectively from crises. This could be particularly useful for place leaders undertaking co-creation of place-based storytelling to improve community wellbeing. The plan’s apex should be the collective transformational vision for the town centre, and this could be the most productive place to start. The plan can then work back from there, inserting actions and responsibilities, opportunities to develop support and build capacity, and immediate actions. In many cases, the immediate actions will have just started – but earlier stages of the plan can be populated based on what has already happened. It is useful to document this.
The plan should be clear, apolitical, jargon free and written for a broad audience. It should translate the needs and desires of the whole community into a sensible vision, underpinned by evidence and accepting of change. It should be precise about governance and how groups are involved in delivery.
This could extend to the defrayal of available funding. The Council may have certain legal responsibilities and duties of care, but is not necessarily best-placed to deliver particular projects. For instance, the local BID may be better able to engage business communities, faith groups or neighbourhood forums may have good connections into hard to reach groups, and certain local businesses may be experienced in introducing innovative thinking into streetscapes redesign. You may want to include ‘in-kind’ funding and support as well as the ERDF funding in your plan, so that it is clear how the very necessary activities are supported.
Inevitably, the plan is likely to be written by a small team, most likely from within the local Council, or perhaps the BID. If the process of developing the plan is open, transparent and inclusive, this is not a problem, but ownership of the plan by anyone organisation ceases at this point.
Where individuals and groups were not initially involved in the plan development process – potentially caught up in the immediate crisis – there must be space available for them to pick it up later and adopt elements of the plan’s delivery, incorporating into the wider governance arrangement.
Plan frameworks developed by one town centre should be applicable to others in the same county or city and support must be given to those who wish to do so to apply the plan to their local neighbourhood. This widens the potential network of support and provides an opportunity for more holistic planning.
The Shrewsbury Big Town Plan is a good example of a co-designed plan with adoptability. While the initial process involved a broad cross section of the community, it is not static, and organisations not originally involved have been able to ‘sign-up’ to the plan at a later date and get involved in its delivery.
In the wake of the Skripal affair, Salisbury Town Council, Salisbury BID, the local police force, regional government and the LEP quickly formed an ‘emergency cabinet’ that was focused initially on developing a plan to deal with the crisis and then later to reintroduce shoppers into the town centre, many of who were anxious about returning.
Given the clear parallels with COVID19 and the process of easing lockdown in commercial areas, lessons can be learned.
Transparency, collaboration and communication are the central themes. Governance arrangements need to be inclusive and allow for flexibility. Responsibilities must be clear and tasks deliverable. Capacity can be built but agencies beyond the council should be trusted to deliver where appropriate and assisted to do so where necessary.
Leadership is also important – where the plan must be communicated to the whole place, it will be ‘owned’ by smaller numbers of agencies, delivered by fewer people within those agencies and led by a small group of champions (see Fig 1 below).
There is likely to be some fluidity between the categories of leadership, ownership and delivery and many of the agencies involved will be involved in all three. Leaders should be senior people nominated within the governance structure for their leadership and communication skills, standing within the community and ability to engender trust.
Delivery should be undertaken by those that are most qualified for the task, and also as a way of developing ownership in the community where appropriate. Delivery bodies could include local businesses or their representative bodies, third sector organisations and local civic groups, departments in the Council and consultants.
‘Ownership’ requires a detailed knowledge of the plan and should be widespread among the stakeholders, delivery organisations and officers, even if tangential to the delivery. The formal governance structure includes the first three of these categories
Finally, widespread engagement of the plan and its objectives among the business and resident community - some of whom will be involved in delivery of the plan - is necessary to ensure support. The business and resident community should be considered symbiotic. Encourage residents to support local businesses, building on the momentum of ‘compassionate consumerism’ seen during lockdown.
Briefing the press regularly will also help reduce the likelihood of negative stories about the high street.
Fig 1: Layers of responsibility for high street recovery plan
Plans must balance a range of contested demands. Principal among these is the balance between economy and public health, ensuring safety is the first consideration in reopening town centres, but planning measures which balance this with the clear need for businesses to return to profitability.
This extends to the management of queues, the design of highways to balance a range of space requirements, the handling of licences to permit socially distanced hospitality and the protection of the public from worsening air quality.
Liverpool BID Company consulted with public health officials to develop a business reopening checklist which balances many of these concerns. Liverpool City Council and Liverpool BID are working together with the help of landscape designers, street furniture manufacturers and licencing and communications teams to reimagine Liverpool hospitality, with safety as the primary concern but no ideas off the table, including how alcohol licences are consulted and enforced. Bristol City Council is taking this approach also.
Finally, the approach to providing a safe, welcoming public realm requires positive planning. Immediate streetscape reconfigurations and measures were heavily reliant on barriers, bollards and ‘emergency’-style signage. More recent plans have employed tactical urbanism to demarcate space and present a welcoming public realm. For many places, such measures will be treated as a pilot ahead of longer-term changes to the way city streets are designed and used.
Value for money, data, monitoring and evaluation
As with all ERDF funding, activities delivered under the grant should demonstrate value for money and be subject to comprehensive monitoring and evaluation. Whilst these are conditions of funding, they also help develop an understanding both locally and on a national level of how the recovery is progressing.
The High Streets Task Force is working to develop a national data framework which will enable local authorities and communities to understand how data can be used to monitor and evaluate the recovery, what datasets are available, what can be collected locally and what it tells us. The government and the High Streets Task Force will be using reported information from these activities to develop cost-efficient high street support products and forecasts. For this reason, it is essential that these considerations are built into recovery plans.
Structure of your plan
Recovery plans should be grounded in evidence. Although regional and national evidence is important, locally produced evidence is vital to build a picture of your town centre. There is no single plan for recovery just as there is no single high street or city centre so those developing plans should avoid the ‘cookie-cutter’ approach.
Evidence sources can include local or neighbourhood plan evidence base, footfall, sentiment data, air quality heatmaps, demographic data, catchment, retail capacity studies and others. Primary data should also be amassed via an engagement exercise with business and resident communities to provide the direction of travel for the recovery plan. Take care to ensure that information flows both ways: those that have engaged should be kept in touch with the process so they can see how they have contributed and develop a sense of ownership over the future of the place.
The High Streets Task Force recovery framework can be edited according to the stages and actions that are most relevant to your town centre. Across the four stages of Crisis, Pre-Recovery, Recovery and Transformation there are a range of suggested activities that contribute to a considered development of the high street towards the new vision. Transformation looks to the long-term and sets out some evidence-based guidance for the long-term vitality and viability of town centres. This can be used as a guidance document for developing the vision.