Town centres are at the heart of Welsh life and high street sustainability requires joined up delivery, brave decision-making and ambitious leadership according to a report from Audit Wales.
The ‘Regenerating Town Centres in Wales’ report examines the need for more ambitious action to regenerate town centres in Wales, which it calls ‘a nation of small interdependent towns, villages and communities’.
According to the report, the challenges facing many town centres in Wales are similar to the regeneration of 1945 post-war Britain.
It said that between 1950 and 1980, local authorities prioritised regeneration of town centres, which created new and greater retail space.
However, past policy choices, changing consumer expectations and technological advances are now adversely affecting many Welsh town centres, the report stated.
As well as this, it said that the Covid-19 pandemic has now added to these problems and acknowledged that it created challenges for local and central government, but overall, it said that they have responded well to keep people safe and businesses working.
However, figures show that one in seven shops on Welsh high streets are now empty, despite the Welsh Government investing and levering in £892.6m over the last seven years.
The report said that local authorities do not have the capacity to respond to this situation and are not always using the powers they have to help regenerate towns.
The review found that there is optimism for the future of town centres but said to be successful, councils must focus on the four I’s of ‘intention, involvement, informed and intervention’.
In addition, it noted that the Welsh Government have prioritised town centre regeneration going forward through a national programme of change.
Whilst there are many stakeholders who have a role in regenerating towns centres, local authorities are key, the report said.
It said that their wide range of statutory powers can determine the shape and environment of town centres from planning and transport, to housing and tourism, for example.
To deliver the best local outcome, the report argued that policies and joint working need to be aligned and integrated, with resources prioritised on town centres.
It recommends that Welsh Government works with local authorities to review and address transport challenges facing town centres and suggest they consolidate funding to reduce bureaucracy.
For local authorities, they recommend that they use their existing powers and resources available and work in collaboration with other councils in order to achieve the best possible outcome for town centres.
As well as this, the report also recommends that local authorities use Audit Wales’ regeneration tool to self-assess their current approaches, as well as to identify improvements.
Commenting, Auditor General for Wales, Adrian Crompton said:
“Rapid change is taking place in our town centres and the full impact of Covid-19 is yet to be felt.
“Priorities for action that appeared reasonable 18 months ago no longer reflect the changes that are taking place and the challenges that now need to be addressed.
“National and local government need to deliver integrated solutions, make brave decisions and provide bold, ambitious leadership if we are to address the challenges facing our town centres.”