Build Back Better – High Street

Rebecca Heron, director of economy and skills at Wigan Council, discusses how COVID-19 has affected the town’s regeneration plans, and the unique opportunity that the situation presents to build back better.

Like the majority of people, I was worried when the lockdown first started. Wigan Council was at the start of a major town centre regeneration project, with all the initial plans in place, and it felt like all of these could come crumbling down.

Perhaps the most significant impact that the lockdown period has had on town centres is that it has accelerated and intensified trends in the decline of retail. Wigan has a massive oversupply of retail, and with the current crisis having a severe impact on the sector, it is certainly possible that some of our retailers will not return once the crisis is over, leaving a significant number of additional empty properties on our high street.

However, having had time to reflect and consider our plans for the future, I actually think we’ve been fortunate. Our plans to diversify our town centre, bringing new uses such as residential, cultural and leisure, food and drink and workspace remain largely unchanged and are in fact more important than ever. But we do have an opportunity to ensure that our plans are fit for a post-COVID world.

For example, the lockdown has shown us the importance of high-quality public amenity space, particularly for those living in town and city centres: quality public space was always an important component of our plans, but even more so now. And as so many people have adapted to working remotely throughout this crisis, I anticipate an increase in demand for flexible workspace as we move out of it, so we have an opportunity to consider that alongside demand for more traditional office space.

Many of the borough’s key sectors will have come through this relatively well, including manufacturing, food production and logistics and distribution. However, we still need to focus our efforts on driving growth in higher value sectors such as digital and creative to provide opportunities for young people, which is why our plans for incubation space within the Civic Centre and live/work space on King Street are so important.

The Council remains committed to our long-term strategic plan for growth and regeneration, despite the pressures that COVID-19 has placed on our budget. We know that the only way to deliver a sustainable future is to create jobs and homes, in turn generating the business rates and council tax income we need to deliver services.

But it is undeniable that we will need support and funding from central government. That’s why, in the midst of the crisis, we continued to prioritise our bid for Future High Street funding and were able to submit our bid two and a half weeks before the Government deadline.

Our Future High Street Fund bid is at the core of our response to COVID-19, focusing on a number of inter-related projects designed to address the key challenges facing the town centre. We’re looking to deliver transformational change that will drive footfall, create a sustainable economy and improve the experience of the town centres for business, residents and visitors. With the support of Deloitte’s Real Estate team, we have identified a series of schemes that offer a real opportunity to turn the town into an attractive proposition for any business or individual.

In addition to the development of residential and workspace, our plans include a quality cultural and leisure offering through the redevelopment of the Galleries shopping centre and the King Street area.

A key part of our response to COVID-19 can be found in our Smart Wigan initiative, prioritising effective place management. Of particular interest is the repurposing of our car parking spaces over time to accommodate and encourage more sustainable modes of transport, from electric charge points to bike sharing spaces. We’re also considering the best ways to use information and data, not only to inform decisions we make as a council, but to inform the public on what is available to them.

While COVID-19 has had a disruptive impact on much of our everyday lives, the experiences of Wigan Council highlight how opportunity can be made out of this adversity, and may actually offer us a real chance to build back better.

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