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The Future of English Towns

As 100 towns across the UK develop Investment Plans for the Government’s Town Deals, Pioneering Places was invited to present some take-aways from our project and possible parallels with Town Deals. This is a transcript of our talk at the Westminster Social Policy Forum Event, Next Steps for English Towns – Priorities for Growth, Infrastructure and Implementing Town Deals.

Pioneering Places is the joint-largest of the UK’s Great Place schemes – a partnership between Arts Council England and the National Lottery Heritage Fund …. the first time these two organisations have come together to jointly-fund a national initiative. 

  • Pioneering Places is a unique multi-site, poly-centric placemaking partnership project taking place across what will now be 4 years, 4 towns and cities spanning 5 different local authorities.
  • At its heart, Pioneering Places is a partnership between these local authorities and the communities they represent, education providers, town planners, Historic England’s Heritage Action Zone project, architects and local businesses. 
  • In three out of the four towns,  local cultural organisations are not only anchor organisations – as in town deals – but they are lead organisations in these unique partnerships. 

I’d like to present a very brief insight into Pioneering Places and share a few key take-aways from this project that may be relevant for those developing Town Deals. 

Collaboration trumps competition

Historically, placemaking initiatives are – almost by design – competitive rather than collaborative. Whilst we all recognise the priority to level-up the entire country just 100 towns have been selected for the first round of support through Town Deals. 

Even if we assume there will be another 100 towns supported every 2-3 years, that still means it could be almost 40 years before every one of the 1,186 UK towns identified through the ONS methodology sees the benefit of any levelling-up. 

So how we share the knowledge – if not the direct impact – and collaborate with our neighbours, with other towns in the programme and with towns across the UK is going to be crucial. 

Canterbury Dover Folkestone Ramsgate

One of the most immediate observations about the work we’re doing on Pioneering Places is that it has cross-boundary collaboration built into its DNA. 

At its core, it’s about four different towns or cities – each with their own focus – but it’s how they work together, support each other and learn from each other during the lifetime of the interventions –  that really makes the difference. 

As three out of four of these places are seaside towns, Pioneering Places can help provide additional insight into the issues and opportunities that are particular to our coastal towns and communities

The key focus in all four places is on making these towns great places to live, work, study and visit …. And in that order

That part is crucial – especially for seaside towns, where the focus is all too often on the tourist economy. That’s of course an important part of the mix, but – as we’re seeing with Covid – we cannot continue to put all of our eggs in one basket if we are to build back better, stronger, more resilient towns.

pioneering places memories of folkestone gasworks

It’s very encouraging to see Town Deals and boards have such an emphasis on community engagement. The importance of this in town planning, regeneration and placemaking is increasingly recognised everywhere from the Living With Beauty report to the What Works Centres

But there are some real expectation management issues here. It’s not as simple as throwing out an open question, asking “what do you want for your town?”, because if the answers you receive are unworkable, undeliverable or have no real anchoring in the history, culture or character of that town then it’s just a recipe for more disillusionment and disappointment when those suggestions cannot be progressed.

A deeper level of community engagement – coupled with close partnership work – has been a key focus through Pioneering Places, across all four sites. 

Let me give you an example in Folkestone, and the project’s engagement with the local community around a heritage site – in this case, a city centre brownfield site of the former Folkestone Gas Works. 

This site was still owned by two power companies and had been long-forgotten and disused for decades, despite being very close to Folkestone Central station – served by HS1 and less than an hour’s journey time from Central London. It’s the very type of brownfield site that the National Planning Policy Framework review promises to identify and prioritise for development. 

  • With this spotlight on the site, project leads, Creative Folkestone, invited the local community to “Memory Cafe” engagement events – where locals could share their recollections and personal archive of the site’s former history and also start to imagine future uses for what the site could one day become
  • Award-winning architects, EAST, were then brought in to work up a range of proposals for the site, using community input and consultation throughout and with this sense of local history and its meaning to the community as an anchor.
  • Seven different conceptual ideas were then publicly exhibited and further comments on the designs invited from the public. 
  • Although it was always made very clear that these ideas were both conceptual and aspirational – since ownership of the site was still muddied – throughout this process, there was a real sense of anchoring and of genuine community buy-in throughout

Those familiar with the What Works Centre for Wellbeing reports on placemaking will no doubt also be familiar with some of the benefits of this anchoring approach from a community wellbeing point of view – despite its highly conceptual nature.  But how does this translate into economic impact? 

This is where the momentum built up behind the Folkestone project and the Gas Works site, took an interesting turn. As a result of the renewed focus and heightened community interest, Folkestone Council announced in November last year that it was going to buy the site and is now in advanced discussions with developers, with radical plans to unlock potential for further investment and future development of this previously-forgotten and disused site. 

Education flows in both directions

Educational partnerships have been a key factor in all of the Pioneering Places projects, across all levels – from primary schools to FE and HE. 

These partnerships have to be a two-way street. If we are to address the problem of ageing population and talent leaving towns, it is vital that young people are heard and encouraged to feel like stakeholders in their own localities. 

  • In our Folkestone project, primary school children worked with the Architectural Association’s Little Architect project, embedding learning across the curriculum, from drawing and creating models of their own designs to learning the maths behind building those models to scale. 
  • In the Dover project, MA Narrative Environments students at Central St Martins worked to a live brief to help inform a hugely successful public engagement event – attended by 2000 people in one day, pre-lockdown – at Dover’s Fort Burgoyne – the first time the Fort had been opened to the public on any kind of scale. 
  • And in Ramsgate, primary school children wrote their own artist’s brief, interviewed and commissioned leading British Artist, Conrad Shawcross, to design and build a new public artwork for Ramsgate’s historic royal harbour, due to be installed in Spring next year as a new landmark for the town. 
shared learning is an iterative process

This really goes back to the collaboration point again. A large part of this project has been about coordinating all the partners – online and offline – and pulling together case studies and some of the learning coming out of this project so we can share these both between each of the sites and ultimately with a wider stakeholder group during and throughout this process.

Yes, of course, there will be a full evaluation of the Pioneering Places project – at local level, across all four sites collectively and BOP Consulting has already published reports on the first two years of the wider Great Place Scheme, with the final report due next year. 

But we see the ongoing, live and dynamic sharing of good practice and the results we’re obtaining as a crucial part of this process.  So it’s encouraging to see knowledge sharing and collaboration mentioned so strongly in the Town Deals prospectus.

we are anchored by culture

It’s great to see cultural and creative organisations recognised in the Town Deal prospectus as one of the recommended Anchor Institutions on Town Deal Boards, because that kind of recognition feels long overdue.

  • It’s also very encouraging to see the importance of culture and heritage as drivers not just of community cohesion, but of economic regeneration in both the Town Deal Prospectus and in the recent House of Lords report on the Future of Seaside Towns

Our experience of working with the Cultural Organisations leading the Pioneering Places projects completely bears this out – that this is about more than just culture and heritage as a venue or how it fits with tourism and leisure, although of course they are important parts of the mix. It’s about the wider role that these organisations play in their towns.

“Business in other sectors (e.g. creative industries, professional services, tourism), are more mobile and can be drawn to the heritage and cultural offer in towns … Understanding what attracts these firms, and the wider link between amenity value and economic development will be key”
Town Deal Prospectus, para. 1.12

If – as the Town Deal Prospectus rightly suggests – we need an understanding of what attracts more mobile businesses in high-growth, high-value sectors such as creative industries – particularly in seaside towns – then who better to inform that understanding than the anchoring cultural organisations who sit at the heart of their communities and deal every day in raising quality of life, supporting creative businesses throughout  the supply chain and engendering town pride? 

As for seaside towns … it appears Covid has reawoken an appetite for more space, larger homes, better quality of life, appreciating our coastal vistas and natural resources. 

If the types of co-working spaces that have driven so much urban regeneration over the past ten years have to rethink their offer in light of the impact of social distancing, perhaps we should consider what a co-working town might look like. And seaside towns such as Ramsgate, Folkestone and Dover – as well as those now developing Town Deals – are well-placed to deliver. 

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