Provincial towns are being given much-needed makeovers to enable them to compete with their more fashionable neighbours.
From Barking to Basingstoke, provincial towns are undergoing a renaissance. Flagship architecture is landing in the likes of Walsall; run-down Essex suburbs are being transformed into cultural centres; and the concrete hearts of 1960s new towns are being torn down and replaced with glass and steel.

Lottery money, the emergence of the Regional Development Agencies, new Labour’s regionalist agenda and Lord Rogers’ report are galvanising the unfashionable corners of urban Britain. The holy grail of sustainability has outlawed the development of out-of-town shopping centres, bringing confident predictions that the high street has a new lease of life.

“Local authorities are approaching the issue from two different viewpoints: improving the quality of life and being competitive with other towns,” says Stephen King, policy officer on planning and regeneration at the RICS.

The once lively seaside resort of Margate is one town undergoing radical surgery to recapture its former glory. To transform its dowdy image, the county and district authorities got together to find a big attraction. Terry Farrell & Partners was brought in to produce a regeneration study for the old town and waterfront, after which the project leaders – Thanet District Council, Kent County Council and the Kent Architecture Centre – will hold a competition this summer for the Turner Centre, a £10m arts complex. The councils are very clear that they want the Turner Centre to be a talking point. “The idea is to have a brave, controversial building that will inspire the regeneration of the old town,” says Simon Curtis, principal project officer in economic development for Kent County Council.

Mention Barking and Dagenham and most people think of desolate flatlands around a huge Ford plant. Like Margate, the local authority hopes to transform Barking town centre into a lively suburban cultural centre. Avery Associates won a recent design competition for an outdoor arts centre with associated retail outlets in the town. The hope is to offer a performance space for local theatrical and dance troupes. Again, the theme is memorable design. “There is a view that Barking or Dagenham doesn’t need to be attractive. But why can’t we have an East London University here?” says Chris Howl, regeneration officer at Barking and Dagenham Borough Council, referring to Edward Cullinan’s colourful campus on the desolate Royal Albert Dock.

The Hampshire town of Basingstoke is also getting an overhaul. A £300m scheme by Grosvenor Estates to remodel the heart of the town includes the 70 000 m2 Festival Square shopping centre, a bus station and new cycle routes.

So, as the trend towards redeveloping provincial centres gets under way, what are the secrets of town-centre success?

The first step identified by several developers and their advisers is that town-centre stakeholders need to get to grips with site assembly. “Local authorities need to dust off their willingness to use compulsory purchase powers,” argues Ian McDonald, of economics and planning consultancy Strategic Planning Advice.

In the past, some local authorities got their fingers burned by applying compulsory purchase powers without a firm development partner, leading to blight for which they were legally responsible.

Grosvenor Estates’ experience in Basingstoke is cited by the DETR as a good-practice case study. The developer was selected as the local authority’s town centre development partner in 1994, after the council had been progressing the scheme for three years. A strong legal partnership was formed before applying for a compulsory purchase order, and, although 80 different interests were involved, the partnership survived the inevitable objections and a CPO inquiry. The scheme is now on site.

“Land assembly is an issue in almost every town,” confirms Richard Coppell, an associate director in DTZ’s retail department. “Local authorities need to use the stick of CPO powers, otherwise you end up with ransom situations.” Even if the willingness is there, schemes can still fall victim to market cycles. “The process can take five years, or maybe two with a fair wind, by which time there might not be a market to support it. That can be critical on a smaller scheme with smaller margins,” says Coppell. On retail and leisure schemes, car parking provision is an almost universal headache, given occupiers’ insistence on access to their facilities and local authorities’ reluctance to generate car journeys. A typical example is in Loughborough, where joint-venture developers Metrobrooke and Ashquay have submitted a planning application for a 16 700 m2 scheme with 450 parking spaces. “The retailers would have liked more, the planners would have liked less. But it’s a happy medium that is acceptable to both parties,” says Metrobrooke development director Martin Mortimer.

In the experience of DTZ’s Coppell, local authorities are generally realistic when it comes to car parking allocations, recognising that they are a critical factor in attracting retailers. But he would be concerned if the same space standards that are applied to major centres, such as Reading, were imposed on smaller towns. “I think that is where government policy is questionable. It might be advisable to reduce car parking in large town centres, but in more rural, isolated areas, what does the consumer do?”

In Loughborough, the developer is also funding a new bus station. In Basingstoke, it is cycle lanes and cycle lockers. Other developers might be asked to put their hands in their pockets for park-and-ride schemes. “We try to encourage as many public transport initiatives as possible, such as developers putting in a contribution to support a bus service for a number of years,” says Mark Ryder, a planning solicitor with Berwin Leighton.

Today’s town centre developments also have higher design expectations than previously. For instance, the local authority in Basingstoke supplied the developer with a comprehensive 40-page design brief. “Basingstoke suffered from 1960s and 1970s concrete architecture. We’re putting things back on a human scale, with the design interest at ground level,” says Lawrence Chadwick, retail development director of Grosvenor Estates.

In Loughborough’s case, the local authority also had a design shopping list. According to Mortimer: “We’ve given them what they wanted, which was something futuristic. It’s not an off-the-shelf scheme – it plays with colour and different materials.”

But other developers might still be tempted to take a different line. “Design is an issue, but local authorities can’t be too demanding,” argues DTZ’s Coppell. “The urban taskforce re port was a design-led utopia – but who pays for it?” One solution being put forward to tackle the problem of funding radical design and infrastructure improvements to town centres is for urban areas to adopt a version of the US Business Improvement District. A special-purpose regeneration company raises a bond to invest in an urban area. The bond is then serviced by the increased property or sales taxes flowing from the businesses in the catchment area.

“To be competitive with shopping malls such as Bluewater, town centres require radical treatment. The single biggest issue is lack of resources for improving infrastructure and environment,” argues Strategic Planning Advice’s McDonald. The recent wave of town-centre schemes shows that developers and local authorities are heeding government guidance. If schemes are to be sustainable long term, however, they may need more funding than developers alone can supply.