Small Towns, Big Issues: Aligning Business Models, Organisation, Imagination

This report analyses three small towns in the Welsh hinterland. It highlights how mass automobility and permission for edge of town development makes it difficult to realise the current planning ideal of compact centred towns.

Date added 3 November 2021
Last updated 3 November 2021

This report opens by questioning how the vision for environmentally responsible, spatial development, centred around compact towns with active travel and local facilities, can be delivered in Wales when, for the past thirty years, developers have mainly built monofunctional, low density developments on the edge or out-of-town, where the car is a default necessity for work, retail and leisure.

As such, the problem, the report notes, is not a narrow one of town centre regeneration after the decline of retail, but a broader one of towns in their car dependent hinterlands. These issues are interrogated in greater detail by the authors through considering three relatively small Welsh towns: Bangor, Haverfordwest and Bridgend. Despite their differences, all three towns face the same problem that the business models of the main actors shaping these towns threaten to undermine delivery of the Welsh Government’s new vision and the good intentions of local authorities.

In Chapter 1, the authors explore the structural factors that have progressively disadvantaged Welsh towns in the hinterland and their town centres since the 1980s. As noted above, transactional activity for work, leisure and retail has shifted from the town centre to the edge of town, creating car-served, low density monofunctional spaces like the business park, retail park or owner occupier estate.

This has contributed to town centres becoming more socially disadvantaged places where locals with lower incomes shop. However, within these places, there is also the basis for town centre renewal. All the town centres studied are sociable places which have longer dwell times than the more transactional edge of town sites and there is an existing active travel base, as one third or more of the visitors to all three town centres come from within 10 minutes walking distance.

Chapter 2 explores to what extent local actors with agency can create impetus for urban renewal. Interviews with local authorities, Welsh government regional teams and others highlight the importance of local structural factors and organisational capacity which depends on four key preconditions:

  • A shared vision which connects to place and mobilises different actors.
  • Stakeholders organised into an alliance capable of delivering a stream of coherent projects.
  • “Projects plus” which are more than buildings because they connect to different communities and have a social dimension.
  • A small executive group of “sherpas” which works continuously on developing and progressing projects

Chapter 3 focuses on planning, particularly how, despite Wales having a “plan led” system whereby permission for new development must be coherent with a Local Development Plan to ensure the right development in the right place, development across much of Wales has ended up dispersed and polycentric because the pattern of development has been driven by private developer priorities.

The final chapter, Chapter 4, makes practical suggestions to encourage policy debate but also looks further at the business model constraints. To break free from these constraints, the report recommends that the Welsh Government sponsors small scale experiments which paves the way for a future that works differently. This could include running a Welsh architectural competition to design low-cost refurbishment, sponsoring several high-density new model urban developments and/or creating a challenge fund for social enterprise amongst other imaginative projects in town centres.

Delivering a local, place specific vision for urban transition then depends on effective organisation. In larger towns with addressable problems, the report recommends the creation of formal Renewal Associations, through which the Welsh Government and Local Authorities use their legitimacy and resources not to direct but to coordinate and empower.

This would involve getting major local public employers and health associations to develop and buy into a shared vision, enabling community actors to take a lead in co-producing social outcomes and enlisting citizens and civil society groups in deliberation that frames priorities as well as consultation on decisions.

The report concludes by suggesting that, unless business models are changed to align the objectives of the planning system with the financial incentives for developers, little renewal in town centres will happen and edge of town will capture a large share of new non-retail activity. New public interest business models are needed which can enable rebuilding and repurposing in town centres to create new attractive, high-density housing at scale and new social and community facilities in town centres.