The Royal Town Planning Institute is the UK's leading planning body for spatial, sustainable and inclusive planning and is the largest planning institute in Europe with over 23,000 members.
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1. Terms of reference and method
1.1. The main aim of the Commission for Underperforming Towns and Cities was to draw together ideas from a variety of perspectives as to interventions that would improve the economic performance of larger towns/smaller cities (in a sustainable way) and, thereby, improve economic and social outcomes for residents and businesses.
1.2. The emphasis was on exploring solutions rather than regurgitating narratives describing the circumstances that prevail in such places. The nature and scale of the challenges have been clearly set out in a variety of studies. Whilst these provide useful context, our mission was to try to come up with suggestions as to how these challenges might be tackled.
1.3. Our underlying assumption was that there needs to be a step-change in performance, requiring a fundamental rewiring /re-invention of purpose relating to such places. Whilst potentially useful, any proposals that merely tinker around the edges of these issues are unlikely to have the required impact.
1.4. The Commission’s work was based largely on a series of round-table discussions across the nations and regions of the UK, involving members of ATCM, IED, RICS and RTPI. These events took place in England (Bristol, Colchester, Leeds, London, Macclesfield, Mansfield and Newcastle), Northern Ireland (Belfast and Cookstown), Scotland (Inverness) and Wales (Barry). In addition, a workshop was held at the IED’s National Conference in
November 2014 (also involving members of partner organisations). Conscious of the sensitivities of discussing these issues with local authority representatives, a handful were directly approached for confidential telephone discussions.
1.5. Collectively, those consulted offer thousands of years of relevant experience across all relevant issues. The time for these voices to be heard is
1) Each should each produce a development plan and be given the resources to do so. This would set out what kind of place each town/city wants to be and how this vision would be achieved, including a list of priority projects and initiatives. Clear links would need to be established between activities outlined in each plan and the most pressing issues faced in that particular town or city
2) Where physical developments are proposed, these ought to be bold and innovative: capable of attracting people to live, work, study, shop and play. In-fill schemes and superficial improvements to existing buildings and public spaces may not be sufficient to grab the
attention of all target audiences.
3) Where achievement of the vision requires devolution of powers and responsibilities, this should be detailed in specific terms: what
powers and responsibilities, why they are best devolved and what added value this will achieve.
4) Economic development should be made a statutory function within each local authority and resourced accordingly.
5) In spite of repeated overhauls, the system of providing education and developing skills is failing both young people and employers. All Local Enterprise Partnerships should be given full responsibility for funding skills development in their area, informed by the work of Education Business Partnerships and complemented by independent and appropriately resourced careers support services (supporting both young people and adults).
6) Regardless of what happens with HS2, other transport and ICT infrastructure projects should be explored which have the prospect of bringing benefits to underperforming towns and cities specifically. Better connections between these places and with more successful local economies will help businesses seeking new markets and people seeking jobs.
7) The system of Business Rates needs to be overhauled in the interests of both fairness and efficiency. In so doing, there is the potential for
underperforming town and city centres to be more competitive and retain/attract more business activity (and associated jobs).
8) The issue of poor leadership needs to be tackled head on through the creation of full time elected posts (the word ‘Mayor’ is still regarded as toxic in some quarters). Job descriptions should focus on economic development, regeneration, housing, commercial property, planning and transport.
9) These leaders should head new partnerships of the private, public and third sector that will help to ensure the appropriateness, deliverability and
effectiveness of development plans.
10) Higher education provision in these towns and cities should be supported locally and nationally, while recognising that universities are independent organisations. Mechanisms to incentivise students to study there (e.g. tuition fee support) and the bending of national funding (both direct and through research grants) could support universities in underperforming towns and cities. Universities themselves must play a active role in addressing local performance issues, and see their success as partly dependant upon it.
11) All higher education provision in underperforming towns and cities should be resourced to provide start-up business accommodation and customised business support for graduates, staff and local communities.
12) The siting of new hospitals and other large scale healthcare provision should consider economic impacts and how they can be maximised for
underperforming towns and cities.
13) All London-based government departments should be made to justify why they (or component parts) cannot be relocated outside the capital, as part of an independent review of civil service activities in London.
14) Local Enterprise Partnerships ought to be better resourced and demonstrate the best of practice amongst their peers (e.g. in respect of Board
structure and appointments). Within their current Investment Plans they should be required to set out specific proposals for underperforming towns and cities as their contribution to town/city development plans.
15) The above should be overseen by a beefed up LEP Network, which should also have a coordinating role to ensure that LEP decisions make sense across LEP boundaries and not just within them.
16) Area-based regeneration has its role to play but needs to be appropriately resourced and focus on long-term solutions not short-term fixes.
There should be a particular focus on linking people to opportunities as a sustainable pathway out of deprivation.