Almost £20m of funding has been approved by the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) to help accelerate local authority plans to revitalise town centres.
The funding will be used to unlock land for regeneration in five town centres: Bilston, St Thomas Quarter in Dudley, Bordesley Green in Birmingham, St Matthews Quarter in Walsall and West Bromwich (East).
The idea is to breathe new life into high streets which have suffered a series of blows in recent years, including a downturn in footfall thanks to out-of-town outlets and online shopping, and a spate of recent big-name store closures.
BHS, Poundworld, Maplin, Marks and Spencer, New Look, Mothercare and Debenhams have all recently announced planned closures or have already closed down, leaving vacant units in key locations as a visible sign of high street decline.
“It’s clear the traditional town centre model isn’t working anymore,” explained Cllr Mike Bird, leader of Walsall Council and the WMCA portfolio holder for land and housing.
“Town centre retail is not the draw it once was, and as a result, our town centres are being visited by less people, with the end result that shops are closing down. Where these centres were once bustling with activity, they’re now populated with vacant units and empty streets, with little sign of the trend reversing without intervention.
“We need community hubs which people want to go to: with spacious, green meeting areas, great Wi-Fi, arts and cultural opportunities, family doctors and quality housing.”
The WMCA board approved plans to focus on the first five town centres in October last year. Each centre was nominated by its local council, and will be supported by the council’s own plans for regeneration.
The WMCA will act as a catalyst to help speed up those plans by unlocking land, using its devolved Housing and Land funds to open new development opportunities.
Mayor of the West Midlands, Andy Street, has pledged to use his experience in the retail industry, himself a former managing director of John Lewis before entering politics, to help revive some of the region’s town centres.
The Mayor said: “It’s great news that we now have a £20m war chest to regenerate these town centres. This money will allow us to buy derelict buildings and land on high streets to turn into housing, new offices or shops, and other leisure uses. I know from my days at John Lewis that a town centre needs more than shopping to be successful.
“There is lots of talk about how we save the high street. Here in the West Midlands, we are getting on with it.”
Further town centres will be eligible for a second wave of support later in the year, building on the experience from the first wave of centres.
A Regional Task Force is also being created to bring together experts from retail, finance, housing, universities and Government to share their knowledge and lend support to the programme.
The support for town centres is part of the WMCA’s wider commitment to focus regeneration efforts and housing delivery on existing urban areas and brownfield land.