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Bishop Auckland - a cultural revolution?

Bishop Auckland - a cultural revolution?

Jonathan Wallace & Daniel Gregg 15 Jan 2020
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

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High Streets / Town Centres Funding Shortlists: Seizing the opportunity
The 2018 Budget saw the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, introduce Our Plan for the High Street, part of a wider package of Government measures designed to help struggling high streets and town centres. In previous blogs we have covered the planning reform aspects of the measures, including the consultation for new permitted development rights (PDRs) aimed at supporting high streets; and commentary on those brought into force in May 2019.  Over a year on, we look more closely at the measures associated with high street funding and progress made with these in 2019, as well as additional towns funding announced this year. Future High Street Fund The £675 million Future High Streets Fund was announced in the 2018 Budget to support the development of high streets in a way that drives growth, improves customer experience and ensures future sustainability. It will do this by providing co-funding to successful applicants to support transformative and structural changes to overcome challenges in their area. An additional £325 million for the Future High Streets Fund was announced in July 2019, taking the overall fund value to £1 billion. The Fund will assist local areas to produce long-term strategies for their high streets, and will fund a new High Streets Task Force that will provide expertise and practical support to the successful bids. The Fund will be used to co-fund improvements to town centre infrastructure, including: investment in physical infrastructure, including improving public and other transport access, improving flow and circulation within a town / city centre, congestion-relieving infrastructure, other investment in physical infrastructure needed to support new housing and workspace development and existing local communities, and the regeneration of heritage high streets; and investment in land assembly, including to support the densification of residential and workspace around high streets in place of under-used retail units. Towns can secure up to £25 million of funding for their plans, but most projects are expected to be in the region of £5m-£10m. Successful bids will have to demonstrate that they have secured shared funding and support from the relevant local authority, local businesses or other organisations.As of September 2019, 100 town centres in England have been shortlisted. These towns will receive up to £150,000 to develop detailed proposals, assisted by the High Streets Taskforce. Shortlisted places are now invited to develop their strategic vision and business cases for specific projects for submission in Spring 2020. High Streets Heritage Action Zones Part of the Future High Streets Fund has been reserved to support the regeneration of heritage high streets. The High Streets Heritage Action Zones Fund is open to applications from high streets within conservations zones and is administered by Historic England. Successful applicants have to demonstrate that the funds will be used to: regenerate historic buildings and the associated public realm, on or around high streets, using it as a catalyst for improving wider social, cultural, environmental and economic outcomes; and An associated cultural programme focussed on working with communities and local cultural organisations in developing site-specific events designed to encourage local people to engage with the heritage on their high street. 69 high streets across England have now been selected to receive a share of the £95 million fund.  Those shortlisted will now progress to the next stage of development and will work with Historic England to develop plans to revive their high streets. Funded schemes will begin in April 2020. Towns Fund The 100 places invited to develop proposals for a Town Deal as part of a new £3.6 billion Towns Fund were announced in September 2019.    The eligible towns were noted as having, “proud industrial and economic heritage but have not always benefitted from economic growth in the same way as more prosperous areas.”  Of the 100 shortlisted this includes total of 45 places across the Northern Powerhouse and 30 places in the Midlands Engine. The Towns Fund prospectus published in November 2019 details that bids should set out how targeted investment in connectivity, land use, economic assets, skills and enterprise, will stimulate long term economic growth and productivity. Each place will have the opportunity to bid for funding of up to £25 million. Lead Councils will need to put together Town Deal Boards, responsible for coordinating a local vision and strategy by the end of January 2020. Where appropriate these should be chaired by a member from the private sector. Town Investment Plans will then need to be produced no later than Summer 2020. Where towns are both preparing to agree a Town Deal and are already involved in the Future High Streets Fund, these are expected to be aligned, whilst still meeting the separate objectives of the funds.Seizing the opportunity So what next for those on the funding shortlists? For High Street Heritage Action Zones, delivery Plans are being prepared. For others, the real hard work to get hold of the money is only just beginning. Detailed submissions for the Future High Streets Fund and Towns Fund will follow later in 2020. In order to be successful, local authorities, and others involved with supporting the bidding process, need to be able to clearly define proposals and put together substantiated and evidenced business cases for them – within very tight timescales. Assembling the right team and articulating a clear offer and set of solutions will be key. Asset managers and land owners should check whether they have interests within areas that are shortlisted. If so, as a local stakeholder, it will be important to actively engage with those preparing proposals and developing business cases, and potentially providing input to help demonstrate deliverability and local benefits. So many of the headlines about our town centres in recent times have been negative. But these recent announcements have brought possibly the largest injection of central government funding focused on high streets for more than a decade. With innovative and deliverable proposals, and the evidence in place to support them, there is now a real opportunity to bring forward measures that can help turn around and reposition our town centres. Let’s see what 2020 brings…

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