The Future of Market Towns is not about Maintaining the Status Quo
As we draw closer to the end of March, the ‘will we won’t we’ Brexit noise continues to drown out any other significant debate. Yet, one positive to take from the furore of the last couple of years is that market towns have finally hit the government radar. Dissatisfied with a globalist approach, towns have long felt left behind, bombarded with challenge, most significantly from changes impacting retail and the high street and across our patch, an ageing demographic. Its fight or flight time as towns need to understand and define their future purpose. Never has the debate been more relevant to national harmony and economic prosperity.
Technology is changing things. Young people live their lives around their mobile phones and retail is re-organising itself this way, but who pays the price? We can’t change digital technology, but we can embrace it. Click and collect ‘shop local’ schemes such as Yorkshire based innovation, Shop Appy, use a business led approach and play to modern lifestyle and work patterns. An online platform for local independents Shop Appy allows customers to collect their shopping from local leisure facilities in the evening adapting digital retail around one eternally, enduring factor. People will always be driven by the fundamental need to convene. Market towns can provide services, but they can also provide relevant and purposeful experiences. Understanding your town as a business will beg the questions, who are your customer base? What is the demographic range? What challenges do they face? The needs and behaviours of people should define your place. Every town has its own locally, distinctive set of drivers – the challenges faced by Goole are markedly distinct from those in Helmsley.
Whereas a significant proportion of market town regeneration can and should be business led, there’s a vital role for the public sector to play. Northallerton benefits from its size and service capacity, but the role that public sector investment has played in recent years, signals an approach that all local authorities and LEPs can draw on. Our £11m of Local Growth Fund investment in Northallerton and Hambleton in recent years, demonstrates a strategic approach to place-based investment for rural towns. Investments have unlocked housing growth and opened up both highways and pedestrian links into the town centre. Northallerton Prison site has been re-appropriated to the create retail and leisure space, Treadmills. The site has drawn ‘experiential’ brand leaders, such as The Everyman Cinema, to sit alongside independent retail brands, satisfying day-time retail and night-time leisure economies and benefitting a younger demographic.
Further investment in changing workforce practices, such as the digital hub for tech businesses sited at Treadmills, is given capacity by increased broadband and mobile infrastructure. There’s still more to do, 96.3% broadband capacity won’t cut it in an increasingly digital world, but we’re moving towards the 100% target with realistic and tangible steps.
I believe LEPs can engage with business on the value of philanthropic contributions to public spaces in the face of austerity cuts to public sector. Think back to businesses such as Rowntree’s in York, and the role they played in fundamental, social and economic place-based change. LEPs are already successful in working with businesses to invest in local workforce skills – can we make this about town centre spaces?
Culture and experience can drive regeneration of towns but it must to be resident led. Public and private sector buy-in isn’t enough on its own. The Fitzwilliam Estate galvanised local people in invigorating Malton as the heart of the North Yorkshire foodie scene. Pateley Bridge is another example, where the residents lead a robust and exciting tourist offering. The recent announcement of Barclays Bank closure in Pateley Bridge is short-sighted and does a significant dis-service to the people of the town who are striving hard to make the town economically prosperous.
The future of market towns is an intriguing blend of futurism, I’m excited rise of SMART towns like Harrogate for example, and getting back to basics – putting people and public spaces at the heart of regeneration. We’re lucky in our region that so many of our towns have environment to draw on, but that shouldn’t mean we should rest on our laurels. The future of market towns isn’t about maintaining the status quo – it’s about forging a future that’s good for all.
David A Kerfoot MBE DL, Chair of the Board for York, North Yorkshire and East Riding Enterprise Partnership and Deputy Lord Lieutenant for North Yorkshire