As part of the LGA's economic growth advisers support offer, Didobi and Rise Associates were commissioned to support Tamworth Borough Council in overcoming challenges to make the environment more conducive to investment and lay the foundations for transformative change of their high street.
As recipients of a Future High Streets Fund award totalling over £21million, Tamworth Borough Council have a great opportunity to reverse years of decline and give their town centre a new sense of purpose. However, while funding for new infrastructure has undoubtedly given the town a boost, there remain a number of significant barriers preventing business investment, diversification in the high street offer and businesses working better with the council. Didobi and Rise Associates were commissioned to support the council in addressing these challenges and suggest interventions that could make the environment more conducive to investment and lay the foundations for transformative change.
The advisers identified low levels of business engagement with the council, an over-reliance on non-aspirational retail and low footfall as key challenges that were holding the town back. Businesses felt that neighbouring retail parks had made it harder for the town centre to compete and there had been a failed attempt to set up a Business Improvement District. There was also strong feedback on how relations with local councillors were poor and that businesses felt misunderstood and ignored by elected members.
On top of this, there appeared to be strong evidence of a lack of identity, as people felt the town centre offered neither reflected modern needs nor was in keeping with Tamworth’s heritage. For many, there simply weren’t enough reasons to venture into the town centre.
To engage businesses more in the future regeneration of their town centre, it was important to give them a sense of agency and also make them feel more appreciated by the council. From the fallout of the Business Improvement District campaign, a Community Interest Company has been set up called Tamworth Is Open – and the advisers recommended that businesses be supported to take on a more active role. This could include a bigger role in building a year-round vibrant events calendar, which businesses felt was critical to improving footfall levels.
Similarly, to strengthen relations with elected members, it was recommended that training on the needs and role of small business was established for councillors. Business has very different needs to that of residents and many councillors have little experience of dealing with small business owners or a wider understanding of their role in creating a vibrant ecosystem.
To strengthen this ecosystem, business support initiatives were recommended to help independents and foster a healthy start-up culture. The advisers provided a range of options from meanwhile programmes to enterprise arcades and specialist initiatives to help online businesses try out physical space so that Tamworth can become a test-bed for new businesses.
Furthermore, to help the high street break out of a 20th century retail model and recognize that future town centres need to be focused more around socializing and unique experiences, the advisers recommended a decisive shift to prioritise food and drink.
This would reflect the resurgence in speciality food with convenience stores, independent delis, farm shops and artisan food businesses gaining an increased market share. It would also help strengthen links between the town centre and Tamworth’s farming, pig breeding and artisan food producing heritage.
To ensure Tamworth does not fall behind current trends in food and drink, a food and drink strategy was recommended to create and diversify the offer, support food and drink festivals and provide low entry costs for street food vans, trucks and artisan producers in order to attract investment.
To further facilitate this shift away from a limited retail focus to one which embraces culture, leisure and food and drink, low-cost changes were recommended to the public realm such as parklets, seating areas and more open space to create more gathering points and social spaces.
The research that was carried out by the advisers along with a subsequent report and roadmap provided an independent and evidence led series of priorities to create an environment where the council’s Future High Street Fund award can make the best impact.
Furthermore, by complimenting planned physical infrastructure changes with a supporting strategy to focus on the social aspect of town centres, a blueprint for human scale regeneration was provided that will help win hearts and minds. It will also make a decisive shift towards a more experiential model of regeneration that is in keeping with modern high street trends, particularly post-pandemic.
Key interventions to support start-up businesses, create a food and drink proposition and build greater trust between the council and business will help the council save time and money as well as enable a strong night-time economy to develop.
How is the new approach being sustained?
As a result of the report, the council has committed to follow up on the recommendations. This includes delivering internal training to council members and officers along with workshops to deliver an emerging vision and strategies for the priority areas. The first workshop example will be how to improve the food and drink offer for the town.
Feedback from council officers was exceedingly positive and recognised that making a decisive shift was key to transforming the town. They really appreciated a concise and evidence based report with the infographic summary of the report as a visual focus.
Having support and guidance to change 100 things by one per cent rather than one thing by 100 per cent is a major lesson along with a recognition that this is a medium to long term project that will experience obstacles along the way. Deep analysis of possible challenges and a strong supported vision will enable the obstacles to be overcome as and when they arise.