Metro Mayor’s town-centre fund can provide spark for city region’s development
Euan West, office senior partner at KPMG in Liverpool, says Steve Rotheram’s £5m fund is a great start – but believes more significant investment will be needed
The launch of a £5m fund to help revitalise our town centres shows that Metro Mayor Steve Rotheram recognises the importance of driving development right across the city region if the full economic ambitions of the devolution deal are to be achieved.
While this is something to be wholeheartedly welcomed, we must also be realistic about how great an impact the money will have in isolation. Potential initiatives around public sector hubs, business spaces and housing have all been mooted, but it will take a more significant level of investment if the net is going to be cast that widely.
It’s also important to remember the steps required to reinvigorate the city region’s different town centres vary considerably.
The provision of an attractive re-location package for retailers, for example, could work well in some areas, but have less impact in others. Investment needs to be targeted, with clear, locally driven objectives set.
A significant amount of attention around the fund has been given to helping the city region’s ailing high streets, as more and more retailers shut up shop. While admirable, the challenges the city region’s retailers face are not unique to Liverpool.
The entire sector is going through a difficult period, something, even with the best will in the world, The Town Centre Fund will not be able to reverse in isolation.
Instead, a more collaborative, pragmatic and long-term view is essential. The fund should be used as a catalyst to get grassroots economic and social development schemes off the ground, not purely as a solution to today’s more acute problems.
The support structure Mr Rotheram has set up should, at least in principle, help deliver this. Each of the five boroughs with town centres will be able to apply for up to £1m of funding through The Town Centre Commission. This is a newly formed organisation that will work with local authority leaders to produce long-term investment plans that outline how each area’s towns can thrive over the next 20 years.
Investment and support from the business community will be critical to the programme’s success. They will need to work with local authorities to consider how best to maximise the fund’s impact in their local areas for future generations and economic prosperity.
But what about Liverpool city centre? The mayor calls Liverpool the city region’s ‘economic engine’. Quite rightly, attention needs to be given to ensuring its success.
This fund goes someway to balancing investment across the city region, but ultimately, we shouldn’t be looking at the devolution agenda as a battle between the city and its satellite towns. Efforts must be coalesced.
That’s why we should encourage local authorities to not just forge their own paths, but also learn from some of Liverpool’s own success stories. Liverpool One and the Knowledge Quarter are great examples of projects that have benefited from private and public-sector involvement.
Exploring relationships like this can help councils fully leverage the opportunity the Town Centre Fund affords them.
Looking ahead, we should be heartened by Mr Rotheram following through on his commitment to the development and economic vitality of the entire region. It’s a good sign of things to come.
He now needs to build on this momentum by helping the city region’s towns use this money as the first step in a wider programme of development.