Town centres must re-invent themselves to survive - so say the experts - but this is easier said than done. In Bishop Auckland, County Durham, however, stakeholders have come together to take a unique approach to regeneration.
It has come off the back of major investment in a number of arts and cultural heritage projects. This has included various galleries and museums – founded by Jonathan Ruffer as part of The Auckland Project, following his purchase of Auckland Castle - and the creation of Kynren an outdoor theatrical show (put together by the charity, Eleven Arches) which recently announced expansion plans for 2020 with the introduction of a new Park offering a host of new attractions and experiences. Kynren in particular is a high profile and spectacular show which has been rated as one of the top five performances to see in the UK by TripAdvisor and attracts tens of thousands of visitors to the town every year.
Image credit: Kynren – an epic tale of England, Bishop Auckland
In order to capitalise on this investment, the ‘Brighter Bishop Auckland Regeneration Partnership’ was formed in 2017. It includes a number of stakeholders, such as Durham County Council, The Auckland Project, Eleven Arches, Historic England, the Town Council, Civic Society, Durham University, the South Durham Enterprise Agency and the local college. A Heritage Action Zone (HAZ) was also approved in 2018 and has received funding and expertise from Historic England in order to help tackle heritage at risk and re-use empty buildings.
Partnership working has been the key to success so far, but more needs to be done in order to attract further investment, and ultimately people, into the town centre. This is where the Bishop Auckland Masterplan comes in. Stemming from a wide-ranging community engagement exercise, the masterplan identifies various regeneration opportunities. These seek to improve accessibility/connectivity, enhance the environment, utilise vacant/under-used land and buildings, enhance the retail/commercial and tourism offer and increase dwell time in key areas.
Land use planning is but one component of the strategy set out in the masterplan. However, it helps to provide the framework for many of these opportunities and, if used in the right way, can remove barriers to further investment. Aside from the new Local Plan, other vehicles which can help deliver regeneration include Area Action Plans (AAPs), Supplementary Planning Documents (SPDs) and Local Development Order (LDOs). Most planners are aware of these, but how many local authorities are using them as a pro-active tool? Not as many as you’d hope.
One of the objectives of the masterplan is to provide more flexibility over changes of use, to help broaden the town centre’s offer. For any centre to thrive, it must have a range of food and beverage options which help to extend dwell time and draw people in on an evening. The range and quality of restaurants in Bishop Auckland is currently poor but by improving this sector it should be possible to capitalise upon the success of Kynren and the other arts/cultural attractions mentioned earlier. The Council have already responded to the need for flexibility by granting permission for change of use of the former Beales department store to either hotel or residential.
Another big issue in Bishop Auckland was the need for a second hotel within the town centre. Subject to market demand emerging, this will help to consolidate the town’s status as a visitor destination and capture as much tourism spending within the centre as possible. The hotel sector has been relatively resilient, despite wider economic uncertainty, and many of the national and regional chains currently active are considering locations within/on the edge of town centres.
Although not formally part of the masterplan, the Bishop Auckland HAZ is also playing a significant role in reviving the town’s fortunes. Its delivery plan identifies 49 different projects with a total value of £1.8m, as part of a programme of strategic action, grant aid, specialist support and guidance.
Bishop Auckland is at an early stage in its journey and, like all other centres nationwide, continues to face significant challenges – not least the onward march of internet shopping and the competition from out-of-centre retailing on the town’s outskirts at Tindale Crescent. There is no point trying to turn back the clock and, like many other centres, it is unlikely to attract major new retail development. What it can do, though, is provide a more family-friendly and attractive environment, with a broader range of attractions, which reduces its reliance upon more traditional shopping uses.
Not all town centres will be blessed with the same level of private investment and Bishop Auckland is lucky to have such heritage. But dig deep enough and all towns have something unique about their history and their place in society that can be developed and marketed. A holistic approach involving a range of stakeholders usually offers the best prospects of delivering meaningful change in a range of areas – including both the visitor offer and physical environment.
The masterplan produced for Bishop Auckland Town Centre is just one part of the rejuvenation of the town. It is a step ahead of many locations across the country, though, where a lack of meaningful action is contributing to the decline of town centres. Whilst only time will tell as to whether it is a real success, it shows the value in having a clear vision and reaping the benefit from regional tourist attractions.
Lichfields worked with Ryder Architecture in preparing the Bishop Auckland Town Centre Masterplan. Since then, the town has been selected to bid for the Future High Streets Fund, a new £675 million government fund for interventions which could include investment in physical infrastructure and land assembly. Both Ryder and Lichfields are supporting Durham County Council in preparing their detailed business case for the funding. The masterplan will form a key part of the evidence base for both this bid and funding from a recently announced Town Deal.
Header image: View of Bishop Auckland Food Festival from Auckland Tower. Photograph by House of Hues, courtesy of The Auckland Project