How do we attract more spending in Birmingham’s local centres, to create jobs and prosperity?
People are not spending as much money as we would wish in Birmingham’s local centres because there are more attractive alternatives elsewhere.
The city council could enable economic growth and the creation of jobs by becoming a strategic investor in its local centres. Sutton Coldfield town centre presents the greatest opportunity.
Currently, it is council officers, often highways engineers, who make decisions about the design and management of Birmingham’s local centres.
A new decision-making regime is needed. Design and management decisions need to be made by people who know how to manage visitor attractions. We need to learn from the tourism industry about giving people what they want.
People want their local centres to be more like the places they visit on their holidays; mixed-use destinations with well-designed buildings set in a pedestrian-friendly public realm.
Research commissioned by Capital and Regional, presented at a Sutton Coldfield town centre summit on September 7 revealed only one third of people living within 25 minutes of Sutton Coldfield town centre actually choose to shop there. The other two thirds shop elsewhere, often in neighbouring local authority areas.
The decline of Sutton town centre over the last 20 years has cost Birmingham billions of pounds and thousands of jobs.
The city council cannot be expected to provide funding to enable development, but it can invest its land and property into regeneration companies that can deliver the transformation of local centres.
Birmingham Property Services – the council’s estates department, is currently selling off the council’s land and property all over the city. In the current market the price they will get is low; this does not represent a good return for council tax payers.
In Sutton town centre, Birmingham Property Services is selling surface car parks and the historic listed Council House, but they could get much more for these assets if they acted strategically and put them into a regeneration company.
The council needs to group together its land and property assets as a package. This package could then be exchanged for shares in a new Sutton town centre regeneration company.
With the council on board, a regeneration company could borrow at a preferential rate to pay for the transformation of the local centre. The council could also borrow against its share in the company and use the funds as it wishes.
Having only three key landowners in Sutton town centre makes it much easier to deliver transformational regeneration. However, if the council continues to sell off its sites in a fragmented way then delivery will be difficult, and the adopted Sutton Coldfield Town Centre Regeneration Framework could remain on a shelf collecting dust.
Board level directors at the Mall Fund, and the Sutton Coldfield Business Improvement District (BID), have expressed concern about the council’s fragmented property sales.
The Mall Fund is the major landowner in Sutton town centre. Their executive director, Kenneth Ford, has identified Sutton town centre as being a place of investment opportunity. He announced at the Sutton Coldfield town centre summit that he wants to work in partnership with the city council to deliver the transformation of Sutton town centre.
Sustainable local centres include a residential population. Residents are eyes on the streets and they are pounds in the shops; they are the people that attract more people.
Town centre living is a growing phenomenon – some people dream of living above the Marks and Spencer’s food hall.
Birmingham’s Development Plan should focus housing growth into its accessible local centres, but instead it currently includes options for building 10,000 homes in Sutton’s Green Belt. This will simply exacerbate loss of retail spend and associated jobs.
Residents living on existing Green Belt estates, such as Harvest Fields in Four Oaks Ward, make over 90 per cent of their journeys by car, and most of their spending is done outside of Birmingham’s administrative area, creating prosperity in places like Tamworth and Lichfield.
Adding to the problem, Birmingham’s planning authority recently approved an amended application for the redevelopment of the Mere Green local centre in Four Oaks, with zero residential use, even though the originally approved scheme included over 100 homes.
From where can we draw inspiration? The highest urban density in the UK is in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, where people live over shops.
It is also the most aspirational environment. Why not apply the Royal Borough’s streets and squares approach to creating higher density living in Birmingham?
Birmingham’s local centres need higher-density urban living, design excellence, and management decisions that are taken by people with experience of running visitor attractions.
* Nick Corbett is an author and chartered town planner. He is the director of Transforming Cities