A few months ago I, together with Phil Prentice (STP), had a long discussion with representatives of Audit Wales around enhancing town centres. This came in the wake of the review I chaired, and the report I authored, for the Scottish Government, published as a ‘A New Future for Scotland’s Towns’. (In passing there will be more news on this in due course as the post-election Government gets fully underway, though very good to see place continue to feature strongly in the Programme for Government). I also attended an interesting webinar run by Audit Wales on the theme.
So I was expecting a report from Audit Wales, and it was duly launched at another webinar on the 2nd September. I was though not expecting a second report; as the organisers said, you wait a while for one report, and a second comes along as well. The second report was by Foundational Economy Research (FER) for the Welsh Government, and looks as though it was held back so the two could come out at the same time. This makes sense, as whilst both reports are very different, they are clearly linked and interesting.
I was particularly interested in the FER report as one of its three case study small towns was Bridgend, my home town and a place I have watched decline over several decades. It is a good example of my frequent saying that we spent 50-60 years trashing over towns and town centres, so don’t expect an instant miracle after some nice words about town importance and one round of ‘shovel-ready’ capital funding. The report exposes a litany of decisions which have hollowed out Bridgend, the full consequences of which are now being understood. Recovering from this is not likely to be simple, nor fast. Some Bridgend data from the report is provided below.
There are strong points made in the reports and much by way of analysis to agree with. Some of the recommendations, actions and policy directions chime with our work in Scotland. But it was interesting, and amusing perhaps, to hear our “New Future for Scotland’s Towns” report and recommendations for the Scottish Government described as ‘too muscular’ to be taken on in Wales.
This puzzles me. The analysis (see the Audit Wales and FER reports and ours) points in one clear direction, but the steps suggested to be taken in Wales are perhaps the easy, not the right, ones. I fervently hope we don’t make that mistake up here. There might be a timing issue, but we can’t park the difficult decisions and actions for too long. The clock is ticking economically, socially and environmentally.
The Audit Wales report presents some practical steps for the Welsh Government. These include revaluation of Non Domestic Rates (NDR), improving car parking and transport, simplifying funding and making it multiyear and revenue inclusive, better internal Welsh Government alignment and integration and the better use of existing tools and power. A lot of this will be familiar to us in Scotland. The report also uses data from, and links to Understanding Welsh Places, which partly grew out of Understanding Scottish Places, and which is now a model for our next USP upgrade.
The FER report points to the automobility disconnect of places (overly car borne for disaggregated trips), too much new edge-of-town housing being developed with no facilities and with a car focus, the tension between planning policies and business models focused on cheap and easy out-of-town sites and the need for local community agency to deliver for unique places. This diagnosis is again familiar to Scotland. The steps to ‘tilt the balance’ are drawn in broad outline, namely change to business models, place fiscal and regulatory constraints on out-of-town developments (existing and new) and develop district centres based on active travel.
Both reports are worth a read, even if they don’t focus on your home town. There are really positive things here, and the alignment with Scotland is clear, but does it go far enough and is it ‘muscular’ enough? As the Audit Wales final key message says:
But to deliver this we need to get serious. The FER report concludes with a section headed ‘Can the Welsh Government do co-ordinated policies?’, which is suitably provocative. The slide below from the seminar suggests they want to, but can they get there (the blue is the hardest area, but the one with the most chance of having a lasting impact)?
As we await the response from Scottish Government to our Review of the Town Centre Action Plan, I can still hope that Scotland will indeed be appropriately muscular, and that Wales in due course will get also there.