Regenerating Town Centres in Wales
This report sets out the main findings from the Auditor General’s review of how local authorities in Wales are managing and regenerating their town centres.
According to the Welsh Institute of Social and Economic Research and Data (WISERD) and the Institute of Welsh Affairs Understanding Welsh Places research, there are 192 places in Wales that have 2,000 or more inhabitants that can be classed as a town or large village ie. places that people class as their ‘local’ town.
Some of these towns are more independent and less reliant on neighbouring towns because they have a good and wide range of services and jobs. Others are more dependent, because anchor institutions have disappeared over time, employment has moved away, and few essential services remain. In these dependent places, people are often reliant on accessing neighbouring towns for work, to buy goods, meet friends and use leisure and recreation services. No two places are the same and, therefore, require different solutions to the challenges they face.
This report states that many of the challenges facing Welsh high streets and town centres today are rooted in the planning policy decisions of the Post World War II period. Between 1950 and 1980, local authorities prioritised regeneration of town centres creating new and greater retail space. However, since then, the growth in out-of-town retail, the progressive loss of ‘essential services’ from town centres – banks, post offices and public services – and the growth in online shopping have contributed to a steady decline in many town centres. And the pandemic has added to these problems.
Whilst the report states that both the Welsh government and local councils have responded well to support town-centre businesses during COVID-19, town centres are still struggling. The report notes that national and local government need to deliver integrated solutions and make brave decisions going forward, providing honest, strong and dynamic leadership.
Whilst local authorities are well-placed to prioritise and lead on place planning, they need to be clear on the purpose of their town centres, make better use of information to fully understand problems and identify solutions, and involve public sector partners, the third sector, town and community councils, communities, and businesses when making decisions.
The report lists a number of recommendations to address the challenges facing Welsh town centres. These include recommending that the Welsh Government:
- Reviews Nondomestic Rates to ensure the system better reflects town centre conditions when the payments holiday ends in March 2022.
- Works with local authorities to review transport challenges facing town centres and agrees how best to address these.
- Moves away from annual bidding cycles to multi-year allocations; and rebalances investment from capital to revenue to help local authorities address staff capacity and skills shortages.
- Sets out how it plans to deliver a ‘Town Centres First’ approach in practice, including its expectations of partners and how it will make this ambition a reality.
Despite the Welsh Government providing all 22 local authorities in Wales with training on how best to use existing enforcement, financial assistance and debt recovery powers, the report states that these are not being consistently nor effectively utilised to support regeneration. Therefore, it recommends that local authorities take appropriate action, using existing powers and resources, to achieve the best possible outcome for town centres by:
- Using alternative methods of enforcement before using Compulsory Purchase Orders (CPOs) as a last resort.
- Integrating enforcement strategies with wider departmental strategies across housing, environmental health, planning and regeneration teams to make more effective use of existing skills and resources.
- Ensuring there is capacity and the right expertise to use the full range of powers, working in collaboration with other councils to achieve good outcomes.
The final recommendation is for local authorities to use the Audit Wales regeneration online tool to self-assess their current approaches and identify where they need to improve their work on town-centre regeneration.