Revitalising town centres: a toolkit for councils

This online toolkit is intended to provide practical guidance and resources to assist councils in taking a strategic and evidence-based approach to revitalising town and city centres. This updated version of the toolkit has been prepared with the People & Places Partnership to include newly available guidance to help local authorities and place partnerships to develop COVID-19 recovery planning as part of wider revitalisation.

Shoppers in a busy town centre

Leading a town centre revival

Town and city centres face long-term issues that merit sophisticated and sustained solutions that create new understanding of inter-related issues and cooperation between different sectors and partners in developing solutions. 

Councils and their leaders are in a position to take a broad perspective and bring different interests together in a way that those championing single issues cannot. Local authorities can take a leading role or be important partners in sustaining communities through town centre revitalisation.  

This online toolkit and the original accompanying handbook are intended to provide practical guidance and resources to assist councils in taking a strategic and evidence-based approach to revitalising town and city centres. The updated toolkit provides suggestions of further reading, helpful resources and examples of good practice including practical responses to assist post-COVID 19 recovery.

The toolkit uses the F-Factors checklist developed by the People & Places Partnership for creating a ‘Forward Framework’ for town centre revitalisation. Councils can use the self-assessment ‘town centre checklist’ with partners to regularly review progress with policy and practice.

Key elements to consider are: 

Foundations: the process should be underpinned by an up-to-date review of existing strategies, collective objectives and evidence from recent surveys.

Function: action planning should begin with a clear statement of identified issues; recognition of council and partners’ roles; the creation of suitable responses; acknowledgment of gaps in delivery; and identification of impact measures.

Form and Folk: next comes the development of appropriate organisational ‘form’ to coordinate activity including defining the roles of key partners and wider stakeholder engagement through ‘folk’.

Finances: financial planning needs to include identifying opportunities for fund raising, inward investment and partnership sustainability.

Forward planning: finally, everything gets written down as a ‘forward framework’ and regularly reviewed.

This updated toolkit uses guidance on responding to the COVID-19 pandemic based on an adaptation of the Institute of Place Management’s (IPM) national Post-COVID 19 Recovery Framework. The IPM Recovery Framework has been backed by the Government’s High Street Task Force as part of its guidance on responding to COVID-19. 

The IPM’s Post-COVID 19 Recovery Framework has much in common with the toolkit’s original Forward Framework approach. Essentially both frameworks place a strong emphasis on evidence-based planning and delivery whilst focusing on shaping the ‘how (partnership development) and ‘what (action planning & delivery) of recovery/revitalisation. Both frameworks recognise the key roles of local coordination and communication in delivering successful town and city centre outcomes. 

There are four stages to the IPM’s Recovery Planning Framework:

Crisis: This stage minimally covered the first three months of the COVID-19 outbreak involving rapid crisis management when local authorities and their partners were involved in helping business and other town centre stakeholders including through signposting to and providing funding and advice. This crisis stage was a period of necessary ideas generation and problem solving in ways that brought communities together.

Pre-recovery: The ‘pre-recovery’ stage is a crucial step towards building collective capacity and moving towards more reflexive forms of place governance and coordinated leadership. This stage commenced for many places in June 2020 and involves councils and town partnerships ensuring that plans are put in place for creating safe and welcoming centres in the short-term whilst social distancing and other measures are required. Planning in this stage also has to focus on a transition to subsequent stages when the virus’ impact has diminished and the long-term revitalisation of town and city centres becomes possible.  

This pre-recovery stage involves a strong initial focus on planning for ‘how’ revitalization can be achieved and therefore includes: analysis of evidence to define objectives; capacity mapping and team building; consideration of effective models for governance and maximizing strategic influence. This stage equally has to focus on the ‘what of town and city centre revitalization through the evidence-led re-evaluating and reimagining of town centre functions such as travel, property, public realm, business, branding and digital development.

In-line with the Forward Framework approach used in this toolkit, the pre-recovery stage involves preparing documentation for defining the steps involved in governance and team building as well action planning for responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and delivering reimagined town and city centres in the longer-term.

Recovery: This stage focuses on delivery of initial actions to create safe and welcoming town and city centres whilst COVID-19 is still prevalent and social distancing remains necessary. Wherever possible these actions will offer the ability to test or transition into potential long-term improvements to revitalise town and city centres. In many instances, investments will be primarily aimed at delivering long-term transformation. With partnership development and town centre action planning in place, this stage will focus on successful delivery through using data dashboards in monitoring progress; ensuring effective community engagement and coordination across the town; and managing the necessary finances and fund raising.

Transformation or revitalisation: The transformation or revitalisation stage as it will be referred in this toolkit, requires a conscious attempt to improve town and city centres for the long-term. This involves learning from understanding and innovation in the previous stages though with a growing focus on building on progress in addressing new challenges, such as climate change, economic inequality and the repurposing of town and city centres. The focus is on maintaining a high standard of joint working and outcomes-focused actions through maintaining strong partnerships, secure funding and effective coordination in delivering a vision and plan whilst demonstrating success.

Photograph: Beccles Food & Drink Festival, courtesy of Dominics Photography