Let’s Build Back Better – re-purposing towns and cities gives us an opportunity to fuel growth after COVID-19
For every week of the lockdown I have written a blog summing up my thoughts on the changes brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.
There is a theme running through each piece - that we simply must turn this devastating experience into something positive and create a new long-term normal for Britain.
As such I have been hugely heartened by the national leadership being shown on this issue by the leaders of two of our great cities in the North – Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram.
Their Build Back Better initiative launched this week, is an important policy intervention created by two experienced policy teams, in partnership with public and private sector leaders in the Local Enterprise Partnerships for Greater Manchester and Liverpool City Region.
Headed up by political operators, who combined have more a quarter of a Century’s experience of Westminster, and deep experience in local office, it deserves to be listened to by a national audience.
We simply cannot go back to the old way of doing things when COVID-19 has given every single person in Britain a hugely important moment of clarity about what we value most and made us realise that, when it comes to the crunch, we value frontline workers more than footballers.
Building Back Better is not a process to which we should be casual observers. We have all lived and breathed this experience and should be vocal participants.
As someone who has been involved in place-making for his entire career, I am acutely aware of the role that places, communities and our homes have in shaping lives, for better or for worse.
Property and re-purposing towns and cities gives us an opportunity to fuel growth after COVID-19.
Let’s reflect on three things; the way we travel, our communities and our homes.
It is a truism that one of the main drivers to change property value and improve opportunities for people is the introduction of new infrastructure, be that road, rail or tram, making it easier to leave where you live and take your economic activity somewhere else. Or, go somewhere else to improve your economic opportunities and import some of that back to where you live.
Now, imagine that you don’t need to go somewhere else to improve your job prospects and that a greater proportion of the wealth you were generating was retained where you lived?
For homeworkers this is the new normal that we now have the opportunity to create.
What might the impact of sustained homeworking be?
For a start, travel to major employment hubs would become less significant and travel is likely to have a greater focus on leisure and social engagement.
This would therefore happen over a broader spectrum of the day, reducing congestion during peak times during the long-term as will have to happen in the short-term to maintain social distancing.
Crucially, as major employment hubs become less important COVID-19 has the potential to spur the renaissance of Britain’s towns and suburbs, which have been long been neglected.
Two years ago, Andy Burnham was leading on this agenda with his Town Centre Challenge initiative calling on all of Greater Manchester 10 borough councils to nominate a town centre for regeneration.
Public Sector Plc has been active in this agenda for ten years helping to spur renaissance in towns as far afield as Gateshead, Southend-on-Sea, Bolton, Dudley and Winsford.
Let’s look at the cars we all have parked on our driveways, sitting idle 98% of the time.
Reducing car ownership and increasing active transport cycling, running and walking would free our town and city centres from the need to provide thousands of car parking spaces
These spaces could be put to other uses, such as creating new cycle lanes and building new communities in walking distance of town and city centre attractions.
More residents in town and city centres would also reverse the decline of the high street.
This brings us to community. There is a feeling that the more everywhere becomes the same, with the same shops on every high street, the more the local and unique becomes important. Supporting and sustaining that local uniqueness will enrich the lives of all that live there.
One of the implications of home working is that instead of human contact being focussed around an office it would instead come from the community of those who live and work around you.
Working from home means less commuting, less commuting means more time for you to do with as you wish. This ought to have a positive impact on personal wellbeing if that time is spent well and not in isolation.
Tighter communities based around where we live, work and spend our leisure time ought also to offer some solutions for addressing care for the elderly and vulnerable, by making them part of that community, not a problem to be housed somewhere or anywhere but detached from the rest of society.
So, what about the space we live in and the fact that millions of households have spent lockdown in cold, old, low-quality homes.
In a previous job I travelled extensively, looking at new developments across Europe and the US.
In Europe, where space is at a premium and historic town and city centres are packed with culture and charm, apartments are common.
These aren’t the flats that you and I might see if we went to our nearest volume housebuilder’s scheme, these are beautifully designed, spacious apartments that families can comfortably live in and that each of us that saw them would happily have lived in too.
If our new developments are to offer social richness, strength of community and make efficient use of land they need to be built at higher densities.
We have a template for these in the UK, of course, the Mansion Blocks seen in London offering large, highly sought-after apartments.
Now imagine the new mansion block, mid-rise, light, spacious and airy apartments with generous private space, and larger communal and green spaces for families and the wider community to meet and come together.
Now imagine these in the centre of towns across the country breathing new life into high streets and communities.
And, as we do this, it is vital that we tackle issues such as climate change and resilience. To address this, Public Sector Plc has been working hard to deliver a new generation of all electric, net zero carbon homes which can enable local councils to meet their carbon reduction target.
The impact of COVID-19 also emphasises the benefits of further devolution for Britain’s towns and cities.
The ability of central government to rebuild regions and communities after COVID-19 will be an immense stretch.
Greater devolution simply must follow as giving metro mayors and local government more devolved powers would enable them to recover and rebuild their communities much more quickly from the impact of COVID-19.
The 42% increase in the lending limit available to councils through the Public Works Loan Board (PWLB) will be an important part of this as local authorities across Britain will look at how they can use regeneration and development projects in their towns, cities and communities to kick-start the economy following the impact of COVID-19.
Now we are all at home and embedded in our local communities, we must give local people and those with the knowledge of their economies the power to build back better.
Let us leave no one behind on this journey.
Let’s all get involved and be part of the movement to Build Back Better.