Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.
Our traditional town centres and high streets have faced unprecedented challenges in recent times. First, our town centres were impacted by the drive towards out-of-town retail parks. Next, the rise of digital shopping impacted, as doorstep delivery hit footfall.
Then came Coronavirus, and restrictions that have brought town centres to a juddering halt. Now, in what retailers call the “Golden Quarter” – the critical run-up to Christmas – they are coping with another month-long closure.
Through the Future High Streets Fund and Towns Fund, the Government is backing town centres, on top of the unprecedented support already shown for business throughout the pandemic. I believe that we must double down on this investment to secure the future of our high streets, but the challenge we face is also reliant on generating fresh ideas and local buy-in. It is not just about money – it is about how we spend it too.
While 2020 has brought unprecedented challenges, I firmly believe in the future of our towns and cities, and evidence suggests that many others do too.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, many reconnected with their local high streets. In lockdown, many chose to return to traditional butchers and grocers rather than face supermarket queues. When volunteers mobilised to deliver food to the vulnerable, it was often the local convenience store that provided a base, looking out for their regular customers.
And, when restrictions relaxed, people wanted to reconnect with town centres. Here in the West Midlands, Halesowen Town Centre saw the biggest bounceback in trade of anywhere in the country. Despite all the challenges, towns like this have a future because we are fundamentally a social species. After so long apart, we want to return as soon as possible to culture, to sport, to conferences – social pursuits that are so often in town and city centres.
However, it’s clear that investment is needed. Why? Our high streets matter. They matter because they are the heart of local communities. They matter politically, as they provide a tangible, visible sign of economic success. The Government recognises this, through its Towns Fund investment programme, as it seeks to “level up” the economy and reach out to former “Red Wall”’ areas. But we must think afresh.
Before Covid struck, we drew up our West Midlands blueprint to revitalise local high streets, the ambitions of which are even more pertinent today.
The blueprint aims to encourage a more personal shopping experience – the type you can’t get from a phone screen – while bringing local services into town centres, broadening appeal beyond retail.
We want to encourage more urban living in our town centres, which should also be the natural place for public services. The blueprint also aims to make our town centres greener and cleaner – with more opportunities to cycle and walk – and safe and secure with good lighting, proactive policing and CCTV.
Above all, strong local leadership must drive these ambitions, to build the partnerships and attract the investment needed. A key part of that leadership is pushing for a fairer tax system that levels the playing field between high street and online retailers.
Taxation remains a real issue. If a swift bounceback is evading us next year, then exemptions will be vital – but we must also tackle the long-term problem of business rates. They are simply outdated and, given the financial challenge we now face, the often-suggested online sales tax looks even more attractive.
Investment is also key to repositioning our high streets. In the West Midlands, we are putting millions on the table to back our blueprint.
Schemes vary in size from our £95.5 million investment in the Coventry City Centre South scheme, which will transform the City’s future, to £5 million towards a transformation of Kingshurst, in Solihull, creating a new village centre with shops, medical and community facilities.
Sometimes, it’s about removing eyesores that have blighted places for decades. The demolition of the Cavendish House office block symbolises that the regeneration of Dudley Town Centre is no longer a hope – it’s happening, thanks to regional funding. In West Bromwich, we are pulling down the hideous Bull Street Car Park, reclaiming the site to build new homes in the town centre – bringing much-needed footfall to existing businesses.
We’ve backed opening hotels in Walsall Town Centre and the heart of Coventry, and even helped bring an old rival from my John Lewis days, Marks and Spencer, into Sheldon’s high street in Birmingham.
Targeted investments like these demonstrate a confidence in the future of communities, and we are determined to do more locally. However, I want these investments to be a pilot for securing hundreds of millions from the Government’s Future High Streets Fund and Towns Fund. Across the region we have seen enthused communities, businesses and councils come together to work on their bids for this funding.
Perhaps the most ambitious of these is in the Black Country, where an energised Wolverhampton partnership is pitching for £48 million not just in the city centre, but crucially for high streets in Bilston and Wednesfield too. This funding would go alongside our own investment in the City’s future, like the £150 million new railway station and metro link which is nearing completion.
Elsewhere in the Black Country we have more towns in the running for game-changing investment – Brierley Hill, Bloxwich, Dudley, Rowley Regis, Smethwick, Walsall and West Bromwich – each with their own distinct pitch.
A great example is Brierley Hill – a traditional town centre that was badly hit by the opening of the huge Merry Hill shopping centre in 1990. Now we have the chance to reconfigure the town centre to open it up and ensure that shoppers visiting big retailers like Asda can easily access the rest of the high street. The extension of the West Midlands Metro into Brierley Hill will link it to the wider region.
Communities around smaller suburban high streets are grasping the opportunities of the Future High Streets Fun too. Erdington, in Birmingham, has a brilliant scheme designed not only to boost retail but to make the best of their assets, by opening up the historic Churchyard area to provide better, high-quality open space. They also want to turn the boarded-up Victorian baths into a job-creating business hub.
Too often the debate over “levelling up” is reduced to North versus South. Here in the Midlands, where the Red Wall was first breached, we are engaging with the opportunities to bring investment into our communities that will drive tangible, visible improvements.
The Government is putting in money. But as we plot our way out of the pandemic, it must be ready to double down on this investment, while enthusing communities to play a part in revitalising the civic centres they so cherish.