Major study looks at how Yorkshire towns can prosper

28 September 2020
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Better digital connectivity, new networks of cycle and walkways and revamped outdoor spaces for entertainment and socialising are among a raft of recommendations aimed at boosting the long-term fortunes of North and East Yorkshire towns.

The York & North Yorkshire Local Enterprise Partnership-commissioned report promotes an “ambitious but realistic” package of actions, and considers challenges and opportunities up to 2040. Called ‘21st Century Towns’, the report is a major study examining the state of towns across the region, identifying shared trends and ways to improve economic growth.

Economic consultants, Metro Dynamics, wrote the report. Data from 42 towns across York, North and East Yorkshire helped set a baseline for the study before 15 towns were selected to provide more detailed analysis of socio-economic factors. These towns were Bedale, Bridlington, Driffield, Knaresborough, Malton & Norton, Pickering, Pocklington, Richmond & Catterick, the cathedral city of Ripon, Selby, Settle, Skipton, Stokesley, Thirsk and Whitby.

While research was completed prior to COVID-19 taking hold, the report authors believe recommendations have even greater relevance now, and can be used to influence economic recovery and regional devolution plans.

Kevin Fenning, Associate Director of Metro Dynamics, said: “We think that this report offers a blueprint for towns in Yorkshire to help them maximise the opportunities of the 21st century economy. The internet is fundamentally changing global economic geography – allowing more and more people to work remotely and therefore bringing the modern professional services economy closer to places outside big cities, like Yorkshire’s towns. The internet also levels the playing field and allows greater opportunity for places to promote their strengths through online channels – to attract skilled residents and visitors. At the same time, modern knowledge workers want a high quality of life and Yorkshire’s towns are well placed to provide this. 

“Over the past nine months, the COVID-19 pandemic has, if anything, accentuated these opportunities. Large swathes of the workforce – and, perhaps more importantly, the organisations they work for – have gotten used to working remotely, and found that in most cases it is as if not more effective than working in offices. The flurry of recent home-buying outside of major cities suggests that many people are making a permanent decision to swap city locations for smaller towns with better access to nature. With international travel curtailed – more people are rediscovering smaller towns and rural areas through staycations.

“So there is a huge opportunity. There is also necessity. Many sectors have been badly affected by the pandemic. One of the few sectors still showing strong growth is the digital sector. Now more than ever it is vital to help local people – particularly young people –  to gain the skills needed to work in this sector and other growing professional services sectors. One area where Yorkshire towns have space to improve is quality of broadband access which many businesses and residents find to be too slow. Fortunately, our report also found examples of real local innovation which is beginning to address this challenge. 

“Going forward, it will be vital for local people – supported by the local authorities and the LEP – to take charge of this agenda in their towns. After all, a real strength of Yorkshire’s towns are its strong communities and local networks. The York & North Yorkshire devolution deal provides an opportunity to focus on the messages in this report, as do the emerging Town Investment Plans.”

 

The recommendations in the report are:

  • Digital First: Ensure that digital skills provision is strong throughout all towns; Make the transition to gigabit level broadband and provide free public wi-fi; public sector and anchor institutions to help create demand for digital skills and digital solutions
  • Open for Business: Create enterprise centres to accommodate small businesses and start-ups; Encourage the ongoing automation of practices, otherwise known as “Industry 4.0”, in the manufacturing and logistics sectors; Support agricultural firms to benefit from new technologies; Encourage local retailers, manufacturers and craftspeople to embrace online retail; Increase the value of the visitor economy
  • High Quality Places and Connection: Use the collective attraction of existing assets to create destination appeal; Design our towns for the future, with a mix of joined-up housing, employment space and town centre space; Make the most of transport links; Improve local transport links within places; Upgrade and enhance social infrastructure to attract new residents
  • Strengthening Identity and Community: Work to build the community in places; Use place promotion to attract visitors and new residents

  • Sustainability and resilience: Encourage companies to invest in sustainable technologies; Prepare towns to take advantage of clean growth and economic opportunities; Work with planning authorities to make homes future-proof

To meet these aims, the report recommends several action points, including:

  • Towns futures teams be formed which include business representatives, residents’ groups and town councils. The teams would develop a local vision incorporating findings of the report and the emerging Local Industrial Strategy from the LEP.
  • Local authorities undertake town centre audits, using a checklist from the report, to help identify “quick wins” to improve town centre functions – like improved signage, lighting and basic street furniture.
  • The LEP is also asked to support local authorities with improved broadband coverage for towns and digital skills provision for towns.

David Kerfoot MBE DL, chair of York & North Yorkshire Local Enterprise Partnership, said: “The findings and recommendations from our 21st Century Towns report have been critical in formulating the LEP’s Cities and Towns ask as part of a £2.4bn Devolution Deal for York and North Yorkshire. This funding will unleash the economic potential that exists across our cities and towns, powering our economic recovery from COVID-19.

“Property demand across York, North Yorkshire and East Riding has increased significantly as a result of COVID-19, with prospective buyers looking for increased space and closer proximity to the outdoors. As the trend for remote working continues, a growing number of workers are moving out of major cities and seeking homes in desirable market towns and rural places. This is something our region can offer in abundance.”

Carolyn Frank, North Yorkshire Development Manager at the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), is supportive of the report.

She said: “Any initiatives like those recommended in the report which helps support our local towns to drive their own future is very welcome and something that we at FSB have long campaigned for.  Joined up thinking and collaboration is needed to empower communities to act, and I particularly welcome the idea of town future teams. Improved digital connectivity is a huge enabler too and must be a high priority for investment.”

The report can be read in full online on the York & North Yorkshire Local Enterprise website at: www.businessinspiredgrowth.com/future-towns

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