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Stronger Towns Fund: Genuine help for towns or political football?

On 4 March we saw the Prime Minister’s announcement of the Stronger Towns Fund (STF) – a £1.6 billion fund aimed at places ‘beyond-Brexit’ that “have not shared in the proceeds of growth in the same way as more prosperous parts of the country”.

The details are limited at present, since there is no prospectus yet. We do know that £600 million of the total can be bid for by all Local Authorities, with the remaining £1 billion to be allocated using a needs-based formula (based on metrics such as local productivity, income, skills and deprivation). As such, the fund ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ for the £1 billion have already been decided by local economics.

Snapshots from the press releases and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) sources refer to the fund being focused towards ‘restoring pride’, ‘transformative change’ and ‘supporting regeneration’ (with mention of coastal communities, market towns and de-industrialised towns). MHCLG says that communities will be able to draw up “job-boosting plans for their town”, with the support and advice of their Local Enterprise Partnerships. 

Big questions arise – for example, is the funding aimed at pump-priming infrastructure, local training initiatives, financial support for small start-ups or grants for community-led enterprise? Hopefully we will know more soon.

There has been an immediate negative reaction from many quarters, largely in terms of the way that the funding has been split on a regional basis. More than half (£583 million) will go to towns across the North with a further £322 million allocated to communities in the Midlands. This leaves only £95 million for elsewhere, of which only £25 million is available to the East of England. The fund also looks to soften the blow post-Brexit for loss of EU regeneration grant funding. However, some of the loudest criticisms so far have been that the £1.6 billion is nowhere near enough.

The contrast between reactions to the STF and the £675 million Future High Streets Fund launched by MHCLG on 26 December 2018 could not be more different. It must be more than just Christmas cheer. It is perhaps that the plight of high streets as the heart of many communities is more than just political. A shared sense of urgency and concern seems to exist from communities, local authorities, land owners and other stakeholders.

Turley attended the Civic Voice event at the House of Commons on 25 February. Jake Berry MP spoke passionately about the importance of high streets, the urgent need for retail policy reform and a direct response to the changes in the way that we now shop. He highlighted that individual bids for Future High Streets Fund grant  can be up to £25 million – more than available for the entire East of England under the STF. He also highlighted that MHCLG wants to see clear evidence of communities themselves and the tiers of local government below district and city councils shaping the thinking behind the Future High Street bids. The scale of the Future High Streets Fund vs. Stronger Towns Fund shows the political weight being put behind finding innovative community-led solutions to high streets.

Berry generally endorsed the committee recommendations published on 13 February of the High Streets and town centres 2030 hearings – but said a response from MHCLG is being drafted. He also continued his promotion of more permitted development rights to support delivery of new homes in town centres. We maintain our reservations on this blanket approach which risks driving out lower value uses and leads to poor quality places until more details are available. 

So, is the Stronger Towns Fund a match-saving substitution or own goal? It is too soon to tell, but the details, when available, will help understanding of what it means for the regional ‘winners’. It might also tell us whether bids from local authorities could potentially be a further source of funding to support businesses and investment in critical locations such as town and city centres. 

6 March 2019

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