What are the opportunities for our towns and cities post pandemic?
As we continue our phased roadmap out of Covid-19 restrictions talk has turned to how we rebuild our communities and what they might look like in the future.
Covid-19 has had a devastating effect on communities and local economies, but as towns and cities emerge from the pandemic local authorities have fantastic opportunities to think differently and rebuild resilient, greener, fairer and more inclusive communities.
Now is the time to hit the reset button and try new approaches. By working collaboratively local authorities have the chance to reshape their communities as place where people want to live, work and visit.
Levelling-up our towns and cities
Mace has long argued about the need for levelling-up the UK. Inequalities such as health and employment opportunities that existed pre-pandemic, making the UK one of the most geographical unequal economies in the developed world, have been exacerbated with Covid-19.
These inequalities threaten to push generations and entire regions, typically those in the North and the Midlands, even further behind. The moral and economic case for levelling up has never been clearer so the government’s ambition to drive this ambition through initiatives like the Levelling Up Fund and Towns Fund is welcome.
As such, we see the Government’s ambitions to return to the ‘new normal’ as a huge opportunity to address these inequalities, improve the quality of people’s lives and deliver sustainable national economic growth helping us to ‘build back better’.
For local authorities the fundamental shift in how we live, and work is possibly one of the biggest opportunities to unlock growth and shape our towns and cities for the better.
Firstly, the pandemic has shifted the balance of power away from London and major cities, with less people commuting and productivity spread more evenly across the country rather than being London centric.
With little gravitational pull towards the capital and major cities as people work from home if they can, our transport systems are running at reduced capacity, our roads are free of congestion and pollution and many people now enjoy a work-life-balance they only aspired to pre-pandemic.
The question remains as to whether the shift to working from home or flexible working becomes the norm, but with Nationwide telling its 13,000 staff they can ‘work anywhere’ and Santander quickly following suit, the tide is turning and we expect to see this ripple effect across many other sectors.
This opens up huge opportunities for creation of ‘regional hubs’ and 15-minute neighbourhoods where people can live, work and spend their leisure time all within a short distance of their home.
Once considered too difficult in practice, policies supporting the creation of viable, thriving local communities centred on people walking and cycling are gaining pace.
Offices that once formed the bedrock of our cities (39% of total office occupancy was in London) are now untenanted or are having to quickly adapt to more flexible set-ups and leases.
Towns now have the opportunity to respond by creating flexible, hybrid and affordable workspaces open to all, from big business and SMEs to entrepreneurs and start-ups.
Regenerating town centres and regional hubs
Many factors will determine if localised ‘regional hubs’ will work, most notably the availability of jobs and affordability. But, as people commute less but still want to work in a shared office spaces, there’s massive potential to create vibrant, thriving places where people can walk, cycle and spend locally.
But this isn’t enough on its own. As people have been forced to spend more time at home and in their local communities the value of place is now measured in terms of the natural environment. Access to green, clean, safe spaces has never been so important.
And as the importance of outdoor spaces to socialise looks set to continue, any plans to develop town and city centres need to focus heavily on the quality of the public realm and blue and green infrastructure, creating spaces for people to enjoy on their doorsteps. To encourage footfall and spend locally local authorities need to invest in their estates to make them usable, safe, welcoming and green.
This applies to high streets which we believe still have a strong future despite online retailers such as Amazon reporting a surge in sales up 40% from pre-pandemic levels.
There is still great public affection and desire for high streets. But there needs to be a shift away from thinking they’re all ‘dying’ when the problem might be that the current blend of retail and commercial is no longer what the community wants or needs. Could they thrive as a repurposed skills and employment hub attracting SMEs and community groups or a leisure facility with affordable housing?
The government is investing heavily in this area with the Future High Streets Fund as part of their levelling up agenda. Allocated to 72 areas across England the fund will allow councils to deliver ambitious regeneration plans to improve transport infrastructure, new homes and transform underused spaces.
We see huge opportunities on high streets and across town centres to repurpose, reuse and reimagine existing estates, using assets to meet the needs of communities’ post-pandemic. Prioritising the routine repurposing of old buildings over new has huge environmental benefits and when coupled with public realm improvements can attract residents, workers and visitors alike back into these areas.
Lastly, there are big opportunities within housing. Always a mainstay of what defines a place, the pandemic has changed perceptions of our homes, neighbourhoods and what we need from them in the future.
Affordability is always an issue but now more than ever our towns and cities need mixed tenure housing, put simply housing that brings together people with different incomes.
Thriving communities are those that bring together diverse groups of people to live in good quality, sustainable homes with access to great local amenities and public realm, transport, schools and employment opportunities.
We expect to see a much greater desire and demand for sustainable homes with integrated living and workspaces with access to high-quality outdoor space.
Underpinning all these opportunities is the net zero agenda which is a huge part of Mace and underpins everything we do. Reaching net zero isn’t easy – we know because we became a net zero business at the end of 2020.
Creating net zero communities will be the only way for our towns and cities to thrive long term and for the UK to meet its net zero 2050 targets.
The government recently announced a new infrastructure bank to drive at least £40bn of green investment across the UK and many local authorities are applying for Salix funding as part of the government’s Public Sector Decarbonisation Scheme.
But despite this, the green agenda is massively under-resourced, and councils will need to keep being bold and imaginative with their existing estates to enable cost savings and generate new revenue.
And there’s no escaping the fact that different areas will experience different rates of recovery post pandemic. For many communities there will be a harsh transition with economic deprivation, high unemployment, health inequalities and other factors that were there before Covid-19 remaining as inhibitors to recovery.
But forward-thinking councils can use this time to think differently, look at the opportunities and reengage with their communities. Do they want to rebuild as before or build back better?