A new report from a North East planning and development consultancy lifts the lid on the state of the region’s town centres and funding driving regeneration and job creation.

The ‘Moving on up? Levelling up town centres across Northern England’ Insight report by Newcastle firm Lichfields, comes at a time of ‘seismic’ change for local towns.

The last 12 months have been challenging, says the report, as pandemic and lockdowns have had a huge impact on regional communities as working patterns have changed and social distancing measures continue to affect millions of people.

High street retailers also face significant challenges, notably the growth in online shopping, competition from out-of-town developments, the burden of disproportionate business rates, and changing consumer habits.

The Insight report identifies how places such as Bishop Auckland are fighting back to meet the challenges and benefitting from a £220m funding package across the region.

This is helping to deliver transformative change to struggling high streets and seeing local towns bringing forward imaginative proposals for economic growth. High Street Heritage Action Zones also seek to fuel economic, social and cultural recovery by regenerating historic town centre areas.

In Bishop Auckland, more than £33m of funding is supporting a heritage-based strategy already having a positive impact on the town – the Kynren attraction pulled in over 100,000 visitors in its first year alone, boosting the local economy by £4.5m.

This is part of a wider pursuit of sustainable economic growth with almost £20 million secured from the national £830m Future High Streets Fund expected to contribute to infrastructure redevelopment to accommodate Bishop Auckland’s additional visitors in the coming years.

Over £100m through the Future High Streets Fund has been secured by North East towns and city centres, including the highest successful bid in the country to date in Sunderland. Over £118m has also been awarded through the Towns Fund to the region.

Funding bids have been particularly successful in Tees Valley, with over £20m earmarked each for Middlesbrough, Thornaby, Darlington, Hartlepool and Redcar. Heritage Action Zones have contributed a further £3m of heritage specific funding in Hexham, Middlesbrough and North Shields.

The report identifies six themes that are underpinning strategies to transform towns and pull in more people. Relocating health and well-being facilities closer to transport hubs generates much-needed footfall while more town centre-based education facilities create jobs, inject fresh life into vacant buildings and stimulate growth.

New tourism and heritage plans are also being developed to attract visitors keen to see the rich and diverse history of northern places, pumping millions of pounds in local economies.

Funding the development of space to accommodate new digital and creative industries and repurposing retail space as affordable and attractive living is seen as critical to the future vibrancy and culture of towns. The report says ‘…maintaining a meaningful 24-hours population in town centres will…drive demand for services and facilities, which contribute to the vitality of the centres’.

As part of its research, the consultancy analysed over 100 funding bids, identifying important themes in the report that local authorities, planners and policy makers see as drivers of town centre regeneration and repurposing. This proactive approach is reflected in a package of funding streams that have seen a great deal of uptake across the north of England, says Lichfields.

Robert Dibden, associate director at Lichfields Newcastle office, said: “The challenges faced by North East town centres are well-documented and there is no doubt they have been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

“However, there are many positives on the horizon and our research points to a strong, vibrant and successful future for those northern towns that take advantage of the funding streams and pursue exciting and innovative strategies designed to transform the heart and soul of our high streets.”

A copy of the ‘Moving on up? Levelling up town centres across Northern England’ report is available at https://lichfields.uk/media/6467/moving-on-up_levelling-up-town-centres-across-northern-england.pdf