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Idea Exchange: We invested £4m to boost market town shopping spend by £2k a day

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In October 2015, Central Bedfordshire Council invited town councils to bid for a share of £4m capital funding: the Market Town Regeneration Fund (MTRF).  

 

  • Project: Central Bedfordshire Council Market Town Regeneration Fund
  • Objective: To help ensure market towns facing pressures from significant population or development growth are resilient, sustainable and viable
  • Timescale: October 2015 - March 2018
  • Cost to authority: £4m
  • Number of staff working on project: One full-time project manager, with strategic support from the head of service for investment and employment. The project manager works with a range of colleagues from regeneration and planning and highways departments
  • Outcomes: Delivered: Extensive town centre improvements; devolving powers to and upskilling town councils for the future Expected: Support delivery of wider market town regeneration; stimulate unlocking of private and public sector sites; attract medium and long term investment; economic opportunities through increased footfall, spending, employment
  • Officer contact details: Jodie Yandall

This is a two-year match-funding initiative, aimed at market towns facing pressures from significant population or development growth, to ensure they are resilient, sustainable and viable. In this first programme, we are working with nine town councils.

Central Bedfordshire is not unique in the issues our market towns face. The same will be recognised nationally: long-term underinvestment, empty shops, downbeat public space, degradation of the local environment and facilities and so on. We are perhaps unusual in the number of market towns in our area, which we see as the backbone. Supporting them is central to our ambition to improve the lives of our residents and the area’s economy, so we are looking to underpin their economic viability and unlock their future growth potential. Behind this is a huge range of regeneration and support activities including new housing, roads, infrastructure, inward investment, employment and skills. We believe we are unique in the proactive approach we have taken to help reverse this decline.

Jason longhurst

Jason longhurst

Jason Longhurst

It’s unique because this isn’t simply about grants for shop-front improvements. It brings in a bidding process, devolved powers, strong partnerships and match funding. We set aside £4m capital funds, of which £3m was available for town councils to bid for, on the basis that they provided 50% in match funding. The remaining £1m was indeed for shop-front improvements, through the High Street Improvement Scheme, offering 60% grants to retailers who then invested 40%.

We established robust criteria and a bidding process that would ensure the projects put forward for funding would be viable and deliver for our towns in the long term. It wasn’t a quick fix, nor was it without its challenges. Our market towns have to respond to the pace of growth in Central Bedfordshire. We have significant housing and employment growth targets, so future-proofing is critical. We recognise this needs a collaborative approach, where we can work together with partners, drawing on expertise, energies and investment.

So we have sought to build strong partnerships with the councils, releasing control to them so they can deliver what they know is best for their area, offering guidance on how to maximise the benefits of their investment. We are helping them to build capacity, so they can deliver these types of complex projects at pace, with the associated technical requirements including effective baseline and outcome tracking.

This project is nearly two years into its lifespan. In that time a range of different initiatives have been implemented across our market towns. Specific examples include £1.25m worth of investment in Dunstable town centre, including a new Splash Park and Splashside Café. In Biggleswade, Sandy and Potton, the first three of fifteen mosaics in the Story in Stone series have been unveiled, creating a heritage trail, designed to increase footfall from residents and tourists visiting the area.

There are new market facilities and all-weather stalls, cycle routes to help link towns, improved shoppers’ parking, improved public realm, street furniture and decluttering of redundant furniture. Enhanced cultural and art installations have been integrated into the public realm and through local facilities such as libraries and there is new architectural lighting on historic buildings. Street rangers have been introduced, a team dedicated to keeping town centres clean and tidy, supported by new cleansing equipment.

The market town regeneration programme, excluding the high street scheme, has cost £2,190,800, generating match investment from the seven town councils of £2, 737,000. However, as projects have developed they have triggered even more match funding as the councils have either put more money forward or invested in wider market town activities, and private sponsorship has also played its part, for example the Story in Stone mosaics and lamppost banners.

In addition, the £1m High Street Improvement Scheme funding is generating £573,000 match investment from local businesses. This has stimulated businesses to invest in vacant units, new premises and expansions. It has also encouraged new partnerships between the council’s empty homes team and local businesses that are looking to bring their upper floors into residential use, for example, 21 units in Dunstable.

In fact, the total average town centre retail unit vacancy rate has decreased from 9.4% to 7.06% between November 2014 and August 2017. Fluctuations regarding vacant retail units are seen within individual towns from quarter to quarter, but the overall trend within most towns has been downward between 2015 and 2017.

We believe that the market town improvements will lead to a variety of positive impacts, including:

  • 10% increase in footfall by 2018, 30% increase in visitor satisfaction levels and 10% increase in business turnover. We are estimating an increased average spend in the local economy by £2,000 daily.
  • Ampthill is forecasting that the market town fund investment will have a direct impact of increasing revenue to businesses of at least £170,000. The relaunch of the market in Leighton Linslade will lead to the generation of 20 new market traders, both casual and permanent, providing a strong and diverse offer.
  • Meanwhile, the High Street Improvement Scheme is supporting more than 40 shops, including bringing 5 units back into use.

Such is its success and, with some lessons learned, that we are working on proposals for a future £5m fund, to be invested over a four-year period.

Jason Longhurst, director of regeneration and business, Central Bedfordshire Council

 

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