Town Centre Regeneration: How Does it Work & What can be Achieved?

The report presents findings of research undertaken to assess the scope and nature of the outputs and longer-term outcomes that arise from town centre regeneration and to identify the relevant contextual factors, mechanisms and processes that contribute to achieving these outputs and outcomes. The report is one of four publications produced by this research.



3.1 This chapter considers what successful town centre regeneration is, how it works, the activities that take place and the outputs and outcomes that result. The chapter draws on evidence primarily from the literature review and also draws upon the consultations. The research team's starting point was to define town centre regeneration in its broadest as policies and projects directed at tackling social, economic, physical and environmental problems within town centres. From the literature review and consultations, the common understanding was that town centre regeneration is a holistic process of reversing economic, social and physical decay where it has reached a stage in a particular town centre when market forces alone will not be sufficient to tackle the problems identified.

3.2 Moving on from this definition, it is clear that the evidence base for town centre regeneration is complex and incomplete; however, in the interests of presenting a structured argument, the following four themes have been drawn from the team's research and are discussed in this chapter:

  • Taking an integrated and connected approach;
  • Strategies for town centre regeneration;
  • Regeneration outcomes;
  • Regeneration management.

Taking an Integrated & Connected Approach

3.3 Town centre regeneration in practice is a complex concept that deals with many interrelated and multidimensional issues and challenges that are not easily solved. The literature review and consultations agree that, historically, regeneration has tended to focus on physical place - essentially buildings and public realm. There is now a growing recognition among practitioners and in the literature that a more integrated and connected approach is needed. This means a more corporate approach in local authorities and the active involvement of town centre businesses and local communities.

3.4 This more integrated, connected and holistic approach means a much broader thematic focus rather than simply promoting physical (often retail related) projects. This approach takes account of the town centre's distinctive role as 'the heart of local communities' and an important location for service, cultural, community, leisure and employment functions. However, this more holistic approach tends to increase complexity, in a field where there is already limited evidence of a clear theory and structure to explore the process of change. (See Sections 3.26 - 3.27)

3.5 Applying a more integrated approach within a town's centre involves capital building projects, public realm as well as business development, marketing and promotion. This can result in quantifiable change in business performance and improved local perceptions. Active community involvement and the creation of social capital in the town were also highlighted in the literature as an essential part of successful town centre regeneration.

3.6 The whole town approach is an emerging concept which seeks a full range of physical, social, economic and environmental interventions across the wider town rather than just in the town centre. It is defined by Donaghy (2010) as encompassing three core parts:

  • Thematic - comprising physical, economic, social and cultural elements;
  • Spatial - the accessibility of the town to residents and visitors, together with the connections with its hinterland communities;
  • Processes - the approach adopted, the project design and the delivery method.

3.7 This approach is valid, as towns clearly depend on wider economic issues and markets that are not necessarily within their control. However, to some extent each town creates some of the place and market conditions for its town centre's success (or failure). Town-wide housing, employment and access are intrinsically linked with town centre performance. Business development, community involvement, creation of social capital, marketing and promotion are required alongside physical investment. Business confidence and civic pride are important outcomes.

3.8 On the other hand, for town centres such a broad approach could lead to an even more diffuse spread of scarce resources. This broader approach inevitably increases the level of complexity and so will also require more rigorous project development that identifies clear results chains which link project activities and outputs directly to their anticipated outcomes. (See Sections 7.42 - 7.47)

Strategies for Town Centre Regeneration

3.9 Town centres must also respond to new forms of competition and changing customer behaviour. While strategies are vital, DCLG (1999) also notes that improving the quality of retail and services provision rather than expanding the quantity can in some cases be the key to successful regeneration. Also, success may come from opportunism through backing initiatives from local entrepreneurs and community driven organisations (Singhal et al, 2009).

3.10 Therefore, town centre regeneration strategies are constantly evolving, dynamic processes and successful strategies often include more than one approach. They can, however, be grouped under the following headings (Singhal et al, 2009):

  • Local economic development;
  • Property-led;
  • Retail-led;
  • Event-based;
  • Entertainment-led.

3.11 Activities and outcomes from these five types of regeneration strategies include: attracting investment and business; enhancing and creating employment; image building; improving quality of life; physical transformation; property investment performance; and infrastructure development. In addition to the regeneration strategies above, during the last ten years culture and the creative industries have begun to play an important role in regeneration in some towns and particularly in cities (Montgomery, 2007).

3.12 Of the strategies noted in Section 3.11 above, retail-led regeneration stands out as a common and recurring theme in the literature and consultations. This is partly due to the importance of retailing to town centres ( BCC 1998). However, Findlay and Sparks (2009) find the literature on issues such as healthy town centres, high streets and retail-led regeneration to be limited and highly variable in terms of its evidence base and robustness. From their research they found that it is not routine to monitor the performance of town centres in a regular and consistent way. (See Section 3.15)

3.13 Generally, retail tends to be the largest, most central, highest value and most easily-measured element of the town centre mix. It is also subject to strong planning control and therefore extensive policy-making. Less high value elements and less tangible measures - business confidence and civic pride for example - are less likely to be assessed as real outcomes, yet are critical.

3.14 The consultation responses acknowledged that there has been a focus on retail-led town centre regeneration up to start of the 2008-09 economic recession. Consultees felt that this may be at the expense of the wider and more diverse role played by town centres and the location of other service, business, leisure and civic functions. It was pointed out that not every town will be a retail destination, so some towns need other success criteria.

3.15 Despite the extent of retail-led regeneration, there is a marked lack of research into how this impacts on jobs, rents and property investment performance (Dixon, 2005). In their literature review, Findlay and Sparks (2009) classify potential outcomes of retail-led regeneration and retail development projects as positive or negative changes in:

  • Retail structure;
  • Business development and employment;
  • Community;
  • Achieving regeneration;
  • Wider regeneration.

3.16Intervention in commercial and residential property markets remains an important strand in town centre regeneration initiatives in Britain and is still under-evaluated. To address this, Francis and Thomas (2006) traced vacancy chains as the supply of new commercial property stimulated turnover amongst users of buildings. This technique helped evaluate a contentious aspect of area based property-led initiatives, namely the extent to which they are stimulating new investment in a wider region, as opposed to simply moving existing demand and employment around it. Investment returns for urban regeneration commercial property were found by Adair et al (2003) to outperform national and local benchmarks over the long term. The enhanced levels of investment return conflict with typically poor perceptions of regeneration locations. The poor perceptions frequently stem from a lack of information. Further research (Adair et al 2005) showed that rental growth in commercial property in urban regeneration locations was similar to the wider market and this stimulated investor interest.

3.17 Taking an overview, the DCLG (1999) states that the starting point for any town centre vision or strategy should be a realistic attempt to profile the town and then audit its strengths and weaknesses. In addition, DCLG notes that all kinds of town centre now have to respond to new forms of competition and changing customer behaviour.

DCLG have identified seven aspects of performance to demonstrate good practice in town centre regeneration, namely:

  • A shared vision;
  • A strategy for town centre revitalisation;
  • A balance of projects and programmes;
  • An appropriate partnership or champion;
  • Enough resources to make an impact;
  • Effective organisation and co-ordination;
  • Monitoring results.

3.18 These aspects are considered in more detail in the next three chapters drawing on Scottish evidence from the consultations and the nine case studies. (See TCRF Case Studies Report: available as separate report).

Regeneration Outcomes

3.19 A report by the London Assembly (2002) to investigate regeneration funding generally found that it was difficult to obtain information about regeneration work. Previous programmes had not been evaluated and existing information was unreliable. There was an emphasis on outputs over outcomes or quality. Tyler (2000) concurs that gaps in the evidence base are very apparent and are likely to severely constrain effective policy. Office of the Deputy Prime Minister ( ODPM) guidance (2003) advises setting out a broad framework within which the assessment of spatially targeted interventions should take place. The guidance recommends a pick-and-mix approach as there is no universally applicable set of indicators. As a result there is a potentially very useful role for Theories Of Change, particularly to explore causal links and changes over time to improve the assessment of policy cost effectiveness.

3.20 Based on the consultations, one important outcome of successful town centre regeneration is believed to be improved business confidence and wider pride in the town centre, both of which can only be quantified by using regular perception surveys. One respondent said: 'town centre regeneration is successful when customers, businesses and residents are confident and positive'. Another said ' town centre regeneration is successful when a town centre only requires normal investment (repair and maintenance) rather than further major regeneration'.

3.21 Other issues that were raised in the consultations relating to successful regeneration outcomes included:

  • There is a need to clearly define "regeneration": must a centre be ailing for it to be regenerated?;
  • There is significant potential for rural town centres to become key development hubs for their wider hinterlands and 'new drivers for wider SME development'. This is recognised in the Lowlands & Uplands Scotland European Structural Fund Programmes 2007 - 13;
  • Successful town centres are vibrant, distinctive, diverse and high quality, offering a mix of retail, food and beverage, residential, leisure and business uses; shops alone are vulnerable;
  • A successful town centre encourages pride and confidence which stimulates investment, entrepreneurial activity and care for the place;
  • A sustainable and safe town centre offers choice and convenience across the age spectrum and the evening and night-time economy are key issues.

3.22 Some authors comment on the lack of longitudinal research into town centre regeneration. This is a half-truth; there is time series data on many town centres, but it can be incomplete, inconsistent and - critically for this study - lacking a narrative with theory and structure to explain the processes at work. Where longitudinal research has been conducted, this highlights the complexity of the topic and the need for clarity in terminology and robust definitions.

3.23Attribution is particularly difficult in town centre regeneration due to complexity in the chain of impact of the intervention and the influence of the wider economic context. Most projects deliver multiple outcomes (economic, social and environmental). The linkage between the outcome and contributing activities is often unclear. Most research describes what has been done (inputs, activities and in some cases outputs), while intended project outcomes (and expected thresholds of change) are rarely specified at the planning stage and measured or tested.

Regeneration Management

3.24 A number of management approaches have emerged to help promote town centres. The most widely recognised of these are Town Centre Management ( TCM) and Business Improvement Districts ( BIDs). T CM is a co-ordinated, pro-active initiative designed to ensure that town and city centres are desirable and attractive places. BIDs are business-led initiatives to work and invest collectively in improvements to the local business environment.

3.25 Singhal et al (2009) argue that the private sector contributes substantially to regeneration by adopting various business strategies, which can involve partnership working with community groups as well as local authorities. Businesses play a significant role in creating a vibrant entrepreneurial economy and contribute to social change. The consultations also highlighted the importance of the active involvement of town centre businesses and particularly independent retailers.

What Is Town Centre Regeneration?: Conclusions

3.26 The main conclusions from this chapter are that town centre regeneration is complex and if it is to be successful it needs more than just physical investment in buildings and public realm. Retail investment is often seen as a key way to achieve town centre regeneration and much of the literature focuses on this approach and the elements of it that are easier to measure. In some circumstances there could be an overemphasis on retail investment at the expense of investment in the other civic and community roles that a town centre plays.

3.27 The research team also recognises that the whole town approach is relevant and indeed the case studies (see TCRF Case Studies report) include contextual reviews of each town as well analysis of its town centre. Here, the research team conclude that town centre regeneration strategies should be nested within whole town strategies. A whole town strategy will flow from the town planning, economic and community development policy for that urban area. Town centre regeneration aims should align with and respond to - and where relevant, influence and help shape - that wider strategy.

3.28 The literature review has also shown that the majority of evaluation evidence from town centre regeneration is narrow and does not answer the study question of how regeneration works and what it can achieve. There is a clear research gap around the process of how town centre regeneration works and leads to interim and long term outcomes. The complexity of the process highlights the need for clarity in terminology and robust definitions. Although there is economic theory available, town centre regeneration can be a 'black box' that fails to detail what activities occurred in reality and which of these were responsible for the outcomes achieved. Therefore, the measurement of regeneration effects is often simplistic and links projects and programmes to claimed outcomes and benefits without explaining how this happened or actually demonstrating attribution. These issues are considered in more detail in Chapters 5 & 6. The next chapter reviews the key elements that are needed for successful town centre regeneration.

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