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REGENERATION OF TOWN AND CITY CENTRES - MINISTER'S POLICY SPEECH

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Speech by Lord Falconer to the conference of the British Consortium for Shopping Centres in Birmingham on 8 Novembe...
Speech by Lord Falconer to the conference of the British Consortium for Shopping Centres in Birmingham on 8 November 2001:

'Let me congratulate you on your theme and on the choice of Birmingham as the venue. These highlight your industry's role in the regeneration of our town and city centres.

The theme is timely. After inheriting a large pipeline of out-of-town retail development we have now turned the corner.

We are now in the decade of town centre retail renaissance. And in large part this is due to the activities of BCSC members.

And you could not have chosen a better location - Birmingham: Beacon Council 2001 for Town Centre Regeneration.

It is an example of success in securing investment to revitalise a major city and town centre. And of co-operation, rather than wasteful rivalry. It has secured massive private investment in the City Centre.

Birmingham is recognised for its vision, its strategic approach, its positive approach to planning, its imagination in breaking out of the stranglehold of its inner ring road and for the improvement to the public realm.

Others should learn from the Birmingham experience.

Many of you here today are beneficiaries of government policy. Throughout the 1980s government encouraged out-of-town shopping development.

It saw the green belt not as a precious resource that needed to be protected but as a development opportunity yet to be exploited.

In short, it tried to change the face of Britain. And in many ways it succeeded.

Let us not forget these were changes enthusiastically endorsed by a huge majority of the British people.

The new shopping centres were bright, clean, welcoming places. They contrasted sharply with many of the dreary, poorly-managed town centres they replaced. They made shopping pleasant. It became not just a necessity - but a recreation.

But for an increasing number of people throughout that decade of change and development the pendulum had swung too far.

In some cases shopping centres were accused of sucking the life out of traditional town centres. People worried about overdependence on the car. People worried about our disappearing countryside.

Things changed. The pendulum started to swing the other way. Statistics published in April showed that, for the first time since BCSC was founded, new town centre retail floorspace exceeded that in out-of-town shopping centres and retail warehouse parks.

In large part that is due to the activities of BCSC members. We are now in the decade of town centre regeneration.

And as I said you only have to look at Birmingham to see that.

New Government

Through a partnership between business, local government and the community Birmingham is delivering the much-touted urban renaissance.

Urban Renaissance

The private sector is very willing to invest not just in Birmingham but also Leeds, Newcastle, Manchester, Nottingham and Southampton.

But as we go down the hierarchy of centres it gets more difficult. Small towns and district centres desperately need more investment. These centres are more reliant on the public sector for improvements.

We need to help them learn the lessons of the major towns and cities - to generate a shared vision, real partnership, a workable strategy and a proactive approach to planning and implementation.

There is a role here for the Regional Development Agencies.

Social Inclusion

But it's vital that growth is not restricted to city centres. If we really want to promote social inclusion all areas must benefit. We need to revitalise our district centres and strengthen our local centres.

Birmingham is now tackling this issue through a strategy for revitalising local centres. This will need the same vision and long-term commitment that they applied to the city centre.

We are committed to working with local authorities, local communities and the retail sector to help reach the parts the retail sector alone would not otherwise reach.

A Radically Improved Planning System

We in government are determined to do our bit to promote that. By the end of the year we will announce our proposals for the most radical overhaul of the planning system in 50 years.

We want to make the system faster and easier to use. We want to make it more accessible to all. We want to make it flexible and more responsive to specific local demands.

In short, we want a planning system that aids development, not hinders it.

We want a planning system that distinguishes between the multi-million pound regeneration like the one in Birmingham and loft conversions.

We want a planning system that allows local authorities to respond quickly to economic decline through compulsory purchase orders and land assembly.

We want a planning system that promotes good design.

We propose to speed up the planning system by:

- Reducing complication: streamlining guidance and eradicating unnecessary layers of plans.

- Increasing certainty: both as to result and as to the time decisions take.

- Acting consistently: the principles will be clear and you will know where you stand.

- Making faster decisions - whether for infrastructure, major applications, appeals, call ins and compulsory purchase orders. We have to provide a better service for our customers and for the community

- Encouraging local planning authorities and developers to agree a clear programme for handling major developments.

All of this must involve engaging early with the whole community.

The planning system also has to provide better guidance for you.

At the regional level, regional strategies will identify the strategic centres and where major retail growth should go.

We cannot have individual authorities or developers pre-empting these decisions. These are strategic choices and the regional bodies will need to face up to this challenge.

Similarly at the sub-regional level we expect the distribution of major development to be agreed. Speculative, overambitious schemes involving rival proposals are particularly wasteful.

At the local level plans will provide:

- a clear vision and strategy;

- implementation plans for town centres - to show where change will be encouraged through allocating sites, preparing development briefs and using compulsory purchase orders to secure land assembly; and

- urban design and public realm strategies to create more attractive centres.

This should create greater certainty and speed up the process of developing town and city sites and delivering town centre regeneration.

And we want to know what your priorities are. We will be consulting you later this year, and into the next.

Planning Policy for Town Centres

In tackling the shortcomings in the planning process we are not changing PPG6. But we will review its effectiveness. We want to see how well it is working and, if need be, we will clarify and improve the policy.

PPG6 is a positive, proactive policy which seeks to focus appropriate development in town centres.

We want town centres to be the location of choice.

We want to harness growth to revitalise our city, town, district and local centres.

This meets all our aims - urban renaissance, social inclusion and a more sustainable pattern of development.

Let me reassure you of one thing in this period of radical change. We will continue to provide you with a strong, clear, positive policy framework. And we will enforce it firmly, consistently and fairly.

But above all, we need to change the way we plan. And our policy for town centres illustrates this. We need to move from a negative, regulatory and reactive approach to town centre planning to a positive, proactive one.

We need to change the culture of planning and the way it is perceived. We need to create an environment where we encourage the right development in the right place.

Urban Design

Encouraging investment in town centres is just the start. You have a key role to play. Developing large town centre schemes is a significant urban design challenge.

Big town centre schemes will need a masterplan. This will help streamline the planning process, provide a framework for land assembly, as well as promote good urban design.

The last thing I want to do is to have to call in major schemes on design grounds. But developments must grasp the importance of good urban design. Your initiative to promote greater awareness of the urban design implications of new shopping centres is welcome.

People want developments on a human scale, that relate to their town - not something that landed from out of town. They want something special, something that builds on the uniqueness of their town.

They want something that was designed for them not pulled from some standard box.

Creating Vital and Viable Town Centres - Town Centre Management and Business Improvement Districts

We hope that the lessons learnt by the best councils - the Beacon Councils for Town Centre Regeneration - Birmingham, Croydon, Gravesend, Nottingham, Reading and Shrewsbury - can be disseminated to the rest.

Just as shopping centres need continuous management, regular refurbishment and improvement, so do our town and city centres. They must continue to improve their attractiveness and competitiveness.

Town centre management is now well established, with more than 300 of our 1,000 town centres being actively managed.

But we need to create new organisations, tap new sources of funding and develop new approaches to public-private partnership. The Prime Minister has made clear that we intend to promote Business Improvement Districts.

We still need to secure consensus on how this might work before moving to legislation. We will shortly be announcing proposals in that respect.

But don't wait for legislation to act. I have asked ATCM and the property industry, led by Ian Henderson of Land Securities, to consider how we can fund town centre initiatives. We need to find ways of engaging property owners in resourcing town centre initiatives.

For our part, we will look at what we are putting into town centres and how that funding can be used more effectively. This is why we have commissioned a cross-cutting review on improving the public realm.

We need to engage everyone in the process - we all have a major stake in the future of our town and city centres.

Conclusion

Let me finish by encouraging you to keep investing in our town and city centres. Thanks to your efforts we have regenerated many of our major centres.

Out-of-town retailers account for more than a third of all retail turnover and it is still rising. The big cities have now made a significant comeback - a real renaissance.

So the new challenge for a retail-led urban renaissance are:

- to revitalise our medium-sized towns; and

- to strengthen our local centres - we need a strategy for neighbourhood renewal.

We need to develop a vision. And the community must be actively involved.

We can provide the framework, the powers and some of the finance, but ultimately the solutions must be brought about locally - through local partnerships.

We hope you will become partners in this challenge and bring your expertise and your experience to the task of delivering the urban renaissance that we all seek.

This is a challenge that faces us all. We hope you will accept the mission.'

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