by Nick Smith…
A lot has been written about Build, Build, Build[i] over the last couple of weeks and I share the same level of unease about some of the proposals. But we’ve been here before. Indeed, while you won’t have had the date marked in your calendar, last week marked the 5-year anniversary of when Fixing the Foundations[ii] was published. Back then, this plan for ‘creating a more prosperous’ nation, was penned by George Osbourne (as Chancellor of the Exchequer) and Sajid Javid (as Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills). Chapter 9 ‘dealt’ with planning and some of the chapter’s sub-headings, including its promises for releasing land and increasing the urgency of planning, echo what has been said recently by Boris Johnson. Fortunately, the same level of derision was aired back in 2015, with the Guardian’s Oliver Wainwright[iii], for example, highlighting how the planned reform would give us the ‘slums of the future’. Oliver called for better public outcomes and it’s good that campaigning on this agenda has gained momentum since (with the TCPA’s pitch for a Healthy Homes Act being particularly noteworthy).
Chapter 15 of Fixing the Foundations also promised us a re-balancing of the UK’s economy. While some of the proposals in Build, Build, Build could be argued to support such a goal, the call for spreading prosperity was far stronger within the New Deal for Britain[iv] that Boris Johnson also launched a couple of weeks ago. Specifically, via a section on ‘investing in, and accelerating, infrastructure’, the New Deal provided an update on the Government’s Town Fund[v], a £3.6bn scheme that is intended to accelerate investment in town centres and high streets across England. The first tranche of money equates to an individual pot of about £500k-£1m per town but funding of up to £25m per town is ultimately expected from future waves of funding. At this time of gloominess this money cannot come quick enough. But what next? How will this money be spent and will projects be properly planned?
Before we focus on that, let’s remind ourselves on how the Towns Fund originated. Officially the fund emerged from a combination of two other initiatives that had been launched earlier in 2019, namely the Stronger Towns Fund and the Future High Streets Fund. The former had been introduced by Boris Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, with her launch speech targeting those towns with ‘glorious heritage, huge potential, and with bright futures ahead of them’. This same sentiment was pitched by Johnson himself when he launched the Towns Fund shortly after his election in July 2019. Whilst acknowledging that not everyone wanted to live in ‘our country’s great cities’, he promised to ‘start answering the pleas of some of our left behind towns’.
A formal prospectus for the Towns Fund was published in November 2019[vi]. The number of identified towns equate to a hundred, with Swindon, Bournemouth, Glastonbury, Bridgwater, Torquay, Truro, Camborne, St. Ives and Penzance representing the south west. Each of these towns has been funded to establish ‘Town Deal Boards’, authority-led partnerships that are intended to bring relevant stakeholders together. Once in place, each board is required to prepare their own ‘Town Investment Plan’ (TIP) which needs to present a vision for the town, and include action plans for delivering change over the short, medium and long term (although no specific timescales are defined).
A week before Build, Build, Build, the Government released further guidance on the Towns Fund and invited eligible towns to decide whether or not to submit their TIP by the end of July 2020 or in a later cohort, by either October 2020 or early 2021[vii]. Making such a submission will enable the towns to unlock funding. The funds continue to be justified on the basis of promoting local economic growth, but the latest document also acknowledges the impact of COVID-19 and the additional vulnerabilities and weaknesses that the pandemic has exposed across our towns. As for what the money can be spent upon, the guidance outlines six intervention themes. These include improvements to local transport, skills and enterprise infrastructure, as well as funding for the arts, culture and heritage. It will be interesting to see what comes forward given the breadth of possibilities. It is acknowledged that the fund can only go so far and the competitiveness of the programme feels somewhat wrong in these fragile times. It also remains unclear why certain towns were selected, while others were not, and I can’t help wondering what binds these places together. The guidance does talk about encouraging collaboration between the towns so I hope this joint learning is actioned. Although the further guidance mentions planning in a range of contexts, I hope planners are able to take a lead since in my view, the TIPS are essentially mini-local plans. But will they and how will the TIPs sync with plan-making and other local planning activities? By allowing planners to take a leading role, the Towns Fund can hopefully help to dispel recent narratives that have painted the planner as the ‘pantomime villain’ rather than as the un-locker of growth. I do hope the fund can fire-up some much-needed enthusiasm and creativity for pursuing a town-led ‘urban renaissance’ and I will certainly be interested in what is being planned to help bring our
[i] Prime Minister’s Office (2020) Build, Build, Build. Press Release. Available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/pm-build-build-build. Last accessed 06/07/2020
[ii] Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and HM Treasury (2015) Fixing the Foundations: Creating a More Prosperous Nation. Available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/fixing-the-foundations-creating-a-more-prosperous-nation. Last accessed 06/07/2020
[iii] Wainwright, O. (2015) ‘Osborne’s planning reforms risk creating slums of the future’. The Guardian. 10 July. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/architecture-design-blog/2015/jul/10/george-osborne-planning-reforms-risk-slums-house-building. Last accessed 06/07/2020
[iv] Prime Minister’s Office (2020) A New Deal for Britain. Press Release. Available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/pm-a-new-deal-for-britain. Last accessed 06/07/2020
[v] Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government[MHCLG] (2019) Town Fund Prospectus. Available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/towns-fund-prospectus. Last accessed 06/07/2020
[vi] As above.
[vii] Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government[MHCLG] (2020) Town Fund: Further Guidance. Available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/towns-fund-prospectus. Last accessed 06/07/2020