Town centres and the key to economic recovery

Our towns and cities hold the key to unlocking economic growth post-COVID, helping people and businesses to thrive again.

If we are to build back better, we need to see bold action from the public and private sectors, investing in the transformation of the UK’s town centres and creating opportunities for local people.

Over the last ten months, we’ve all watched how local communities have been changing as a result of the pandemic – from home working, the huge impact on hospitality businesses, and the further rise of online shopping. What people want and need from their urban centres will continue to shift, and town centres must respond to these new challenges. Otherwise, rigid and outdated spaces can stagnate economic recovery further, with no clear or quick path out of the crisis.

In the three decades that Mace has been developing and building new and affordable housing in London and the regions, I’ve never seen a more urgent need for new homes, spaces and places to improve the lives of millions than we face today. I see a critical need for towns to deliver regeneration that creates more sustainable places and offers more jobs and opportunities for local residents.

This is why, in Stevenage, we are very proud to have received the council’s planning approval in recent weeks to change their town centre with a landmark regeneration project. We call this transformational plan SG1, and it will bring new homes, commercial, retail and community spaces to a town that – like the rest of the UK – is working hard to recover from the most severe economic crisis it has seen in a generation.

We’ve been talking a great deal about shovel-ready projects as part of the country’s recovery plans. I believe it is more important for us to focus on ‘shovel-worthy’ developments – projects that can demonstrate from the outset how they are improving people’s lives today – and in ten years’ time. In a truly shovel-worthy project, the ‘how we build’ is as important as ‘what we build’.

As both a developer and as a contractor, we believe that ‘building better’ is the key to a sustainable future. Using modern methods of construction, new homes and places can now be delivered faster and more efficiently in a less carbon intensive way, reducing waste. Stevenage should serve as a blueprint for town centre regeneration for the future – greener, faster, digitally connected and with social value placed at the heart of the investment proposal from design, through to delivery and whole life performance.

Our plans in Stevenage will deliver developments centred around new and green settings. We are creating a new town centre public park, adding a landscaped Garden Square at its heart - all contributing to the health, wellbeing and attractiveness of the town centre for living, working and visiting.

It is now clear that we may never return ‘to normal’, and our town centres and cities must recognise that and begin planning for a different future. People in communities across the UK will need to feel safe to return to shopping, socialising, walking, travelling to and from as well as spending their time in a town centre.

That means that local government, developers and investors must be brave and be prepared to think differently and work together to create outcomes that benefit everyone. Unlocking growth in the UK and levelling up our towns is critical to our long-term success as a country.

Our town centres can be enablers of this future prosperity, and the investment, design and development decisions made today will set the trajectory for a decade of recovery. I hope – and believe – that our plans to transform Stevenage will see a change in the way we deliver town centre regeneration across the country.

This article was originally published in Property Week.