In transforming Middlesbrough’s town centre, there are aspirations for a large-scale urban living offer, which is relatively untested in the urban market. Middlesbrough was keen to understand the market conditions, target demographics (to be pursued) and the ‘Placemaking’ conditions, which would make the development of town centre living appealing and sustainable.
Middlesbrough needs to diversify its town centre offer, countering an over-reliance of retail floorspace. Urban Living and the development of communities in our town centres is a key component for success. Residents have significant options in the suburbs (at a competitive price point), to secure quality accommodation. Middlesbrough needs to understand the demographics which will actively consider urban living lifestyles and the characteristics of ‘Place’ which will encourage people to live in an Urban setting. Developing an immature urban living environment which has appeal, is sustainable and can be delivered in a commercially-viable way. This needs to identify the expectations of prospective residents in terms of amenities, community, environment and place. In the absence of such critical intelligence, any development risks failing, or exacerbating some of the low-value developments which perpetuate social issues and anti-social behaviour.
The market has an element of ‘build it and they will come’ but this work reinforces the need for a greater emphasis of ‘placemaking’, perceptions and safety; to complement the development programme. The study has identified that a ‘unique selling point’ must be arrived at to induce non-price competition. This includes Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) credentials, the characteristics of which appeal to both young professional markets and institutional investors. Some key recommendations, for implementation, include:
- developing a ‘USP’ for our Middlehaven through low carbon power energy and low rent homes;
- creating strong visual and physical links with the town centre and its retail, leisure and cultural offer;
- Developing an evening and night time economy that meets the needs of residents, visitors and workers and reduces leakage to nearby cities;
- Making Middlesbrough a place that is safe for everyone at all hours;
- Continued development of the town centre away from a sole retail focus to a wider one that is mixed use and embraces leisure, an enhanced food and drink offer, culture, education, health, safe spaces and climate resilient greening;
- a greater opportunity exists for commercial landlords, occupiers and the council to work together through a BID/CID or Town Commission; and,
- The ongoing delivery of a positive vision (brand strategy) about what Middlesbrough has achieved, is looking to achieve and how it plans to involve and engage residents, visitors and workers to do this.
This work has provided an excellent insight into the source of prospective tenants and the conditions which are required for an urban community to thrive. This will now underpin future spatial plans and complementary investment programmes. Similarly, it provides a critical evidence base to invest in some of the ‘softer’ aspects of urban regeneration which underpin capital investments.
How is the new approach being sustained?
This work will be fed into spatial planning strategies along with the work programme of the newly-emerging mayoral development corporation.
The conclusions of the work have brought to light the fact that, whilst the elements of a coherent spatial development strategy are in place, they are not fully coherent and interlinked. Middlesbrough, perhaps fairly, has been too blinkered on the mechanics of structuring the mechanics of issues to address market failure, rather than presenting and communicating a combined, and compelling vision.
Each of the aspects of economic development, building a professional office market, town centre transition to leisure and discrete place-making interventions must flow better together and present a single vision which articulates the overall vision for improvement.
The good news is that all of the right types of intervention are already in place, but they need to be better communicated with businesses, residents and visitors. From this finding we are considering options for greater public engagement in the design of development objectives and inclusion in the development process. If appropriate, a suitable mechanism may be explored for enhanced opportunities for participatory budgeting processes; led by stakeholders.
This has reinforced our view, albeit with credible evidence, that the investment in physical regeneration is much more nuanced than an excellent accommodation product. Without complementary investment in the social fabric of new communities, the impact and sustainability of a new urban landscape will be severely restricted. This has to be coupled with measurable and demonstrable progress against some of the perception indicators, along with a commitment to sustain intervention in the long term.