Derek Jones looks back at the IWA’s recent conference on the future of town centres in Wales
There was a moment during the IWA conference New Life for Town Centres ten days ago when I wondered whether we might have waited too long to give detailed consideration to this topic. Simon Quinn, chief executive of the Association of Town Centre Management, began his fluent account of ‘Managing Permanent Change’ by suggesting that, so far as urban regeneration is concerned, Wales has fallen far behind Scotland, Northern Ireland and England.
Welsh town centres are in decline, he asserted, and we need to heed examples from (surprisingly enough) Japan, the United States and Australia to see the effects of physical decline on economic and cultural wellbeing. Shop and office vacancy levels were rising in Wales. If we haven’t used ‘the good times’ to tackle the transformation of declining townscapes, what chance was there that we would do so during years of stringency?
But we were meeting in Ystrad Mynach, part of the county borough of Caerphilly, an authority which, despite economic gloom, has committed itself to carrying on with a set of radical improvements in five of its ‘principal towns’. These are Caerphilly and Ystrad Mynach themselves, Blackwood, Bargoed, and Risca-Pontymister. The regeneration strategy was launched by Jocelyn Davies, the Welsh Government’s deputy minister for housing and regeneration, during the morning.
However, to my mind the centrepiece of the conference was an electrifying presentation of ‘Bargoed’s Big Idea’ by Roger Tanner, Strategic Planning and Urban Renewal Manager for Caerphilly Borough Council. If Caerphilly and in particular Bargoed can keep faith with their commitment to urban renewal so can many other Valleys communities and former industrial areas. And, as Simon Quinn later made clear, renewed town centres have many wider beneficial effects, including carbon reduction, improved health, provision for older people, community cohesion and governance. Town centre regeneration is emphatically much more than hanging baskets!
What then are town centres for? As Andrew Highway, Caerphilly’s Town Centre Development Manager pointed out, each one is unique. Caerphilly itself has the second largest castle in Europe, but now has an opportunity to develop itself as the location for ‘relaxing retail therapy’, distinct from the more frenetic atmosphere of Cardiff.
Blackwood, by contrast, is known for a good range of independent shops, for its Miners Institute and for the Chartist Bridge. It is destined to house the county borough’s main interchange bus station. Bargoed is a typical, linear Valleys town whose ‘big idea’ is to make the most of its topography. Distinctiveness is vital, but in remodelling our town centres we should not change them beyond recognition. Their shape, their individual buildings and institutions tell the story of the communities they serve, not just their achievements but pain and loss as well. They connect people with their personal and corporate history, key elements in the creation and maintenance of a sense of place.
Most of the time we look at town centres more prosaically. Shoppers and office workers stress convenience. So long as they can park their cars, they would much prefer their supermarkets inside the town rather than on its fringes. For those who live in or near the centre – and the benefits of ‘re-colonisation’ were stressed – this is their neighbourhood, the landscape of everyday life.
What could be more depressing, for those who live there as well as those who visit, than a high street littered with boarded up shops? Yet town centres are for more than selling and shopping. Leisure, eating and drinking, performances, culture and tourism all give life to a place, and are often absent, with catastrophic results, particularly after dark. Seats for people watching are necessary, as well as small parks, intimate spaces for conversation, open buildings like churches and public libraries where we can hear ourselves think. Although I don’t want libraries to be sepulchral, I do want to make it possible for people to use them to read a book in peace; many don’t have that advantage at home.
Back, then, to Bargoed, where a new public library is to be created in Hanbury Road Baptist chapel, Grade II listed, just off the High Street. This is very much part of “place-making in a small town, what planning is all about” according to Roger Tanner. With a population of 13,900 at the 2001 census, but with a potential catchment area of 30,000, Bargoed lost its colliery in 1978, and has since suffered from the decline of shops, the departure of public utility showrooms, and decaying fabric. It is ripe for regeneration, but where do you begin?
You begin, Roger was clear, with the people of Bargoed. What do they most value about their town centre and what do they feel it lacks? Like most us they value familiarity, and that led to the decision to maintain traditional frontages on to the High Street, allowing for modernisation at the rear. That approach has been adopted at Hanbury Road Baptist chapel with Cadw’s full agreement.
But something much more radical is in store for Bargoed, in response to the people’s desire for a decent superstore within the town centre. Here the challenge was to make the greatest use of a relatively small space. The planners have come up with an extremely imaginative solution, to build the superstore (Morrisons) on several levels up the valley slope and to connect them with lifts, steps and escalators.
Of course, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, but this promises to become a truly urban experience. It is coupled with a plan to build a feature inspired by the traditional idea of the town wall on the edge of the site. The people of Bargoed will be able to walk up there, look out to the hills, and into the town. Hanbury Square will be clearly visible. It is to be pedestrianised, furnished, and adapted for public events, performances and street markets. A ‘spectacular’ flight of steps will connect the High Street with a new bus station.
It was not possible in the time to take a close critical look at the design of the new ensemble, but on the face of it, ‘big idea’ seems an apt description.
Ideas are what we need. Where else should we be look for inspiration? To Blaenafon, according to Cath Francis, its town manager. It is a remarkable example of a complete 19th Century industrial townscape, with numerous listed buildings which nobody knew how to re-use. Enter the Blaenafon Partnership, a group of stakeholders including the local authority, local businesses, shopkeepers, community groups with a vision of the town as a centre for education, tourism, urban walks and tourism.
Over seven years, Big Pit has become the national coal museum, which allows visitors some sense of what it was like to work underground, and to enjoy the view from the pithead baths. Meanwhile the ruins of the ironworks have become a parallel museum for that industry. The Heritage Centre, which opened in 2009 following the town’s designation as a World Heritage Site, houses exhibitions. The old council offices have been given a modernist front and now serve as the town library. The Workers Hall remains an embodiment of Valleys culture. Blaenafon shops have been given a facelift – and not a single one of them is empty. The old Pontypool and Blaenafon Railway makes possible a highly efficient park and ride service into the town centre.
Blaenafon is already a remarkable experience and Bargoed seems set fair to become so. Simon Quinn believes that many town centres have similar potential, but that huge efforts are needed if potential is to be realised. First, a local authority needs to be genuinely committed to its town centre or centres and to build a framework of policy around that commitment.
As you might expect from the chief executive of the Association of Town Centre Management, he believes in the necessity of a multi-disciplinary group which thinks, feels and lives the town centre. He expects them to spend days out of the office getting the feel of a place, indispensable preparation for managers who want to avoid imposing solutions on to unconvinced and unwilling citizens. That doesn’t mean an avoidance of big ideas, nor should it mean interminable dragging of feet. Confidence in the strategy can be built when early changes on the ground have been seen, discussed and digested by those most concerned. Town meetings need to take place at least once every six months to maintain momentum.
Quinn drew attention to two initiatives which are worth mentioning here because they have not so far been much noticed in Wales. Towns blighted with empty shops and offices might look at Meanwhile Spaces, formed by the Development Trust Association in 2009, to boost the creative use of empty buildings – by community groups, artists and craftspeople, and so forth. It has already compiled a library of ideas and has practical achievements to show for its work in Darlington and Wigan.
Further down the regeneration process are Business Investment Districts (BIDS), so far only present in Swansea. All the businesses in a given area of a town centre are persuaded to make small investments in its improvement. They not only feel a stake in the work but soon find that trade is improving as well. It won’t work unless they all sign up for it, but it can now be confidently added to the armoury of resources for piecemeal improvements.
Judith Alfrey of Cadw described urban characterisation, a tool for capturing local distinctiveness, so far applied in Aberdare, Caernarfon, Denbigh, Dolgellau, and Flint. The words ‘urban characterisation’ are potentially alienating, and care needs to be taken to avoid it being only archaeologists, historians, architects and town planners that ‘characterise’ a town.
On the other hand, the studies so far published break fresh ground for Cadw, It is widening its concern for conventionally ‘historic’ buildings to engage with places as expressed in the form and texture not just of special sites but of whole districts, including town centres. Every place has its own text and we need to learn how to read it before we embark on regeneration – and that means all of us, not just the professionals.
Urban characterisation has so far been used to inform authorities who embark on Townscape Heritage Initiatives. I greatly admire these Cadw publications, but their pace of research and production is, perhaps inevitably, slow. I wonder whether it might be quickened by the involvement of community groups who might be presumed to know a thing or two about the character of their towns, and could add their own memories to the process.
Heritage Minister Alun Ffred Jones was particularly keen to place story and memory at the centre of our concern for town centre regeneration. Like Cadw he is interested not just in iconic buildings but in those which are less well known. Obviously historic buildings attract visitors; less obviously local people do not always feel a sense of ownership of ‘fine buildings made by other people’. He described – memorably – a recent event in Caernarfon Castle, to which locals had been invited to listen to a concert by male voice choirs. Many of them had lived in Caernarfon for their whole lives and had never been inside the castle! He suggested that they might now feel entirely differently about it because it was being used for their benefit, and he described parallel events planned for Caerphilly and Denbigh.
By contrast, he highlighted the potential of Cefn Mawr near Wrexham, a former centre of heavy industry (iron, coal, sandstone, chemicals), which had fallen into decay, but was now being revived by an active local community. It was well placed, with the latest Monsanto closure and the designation of nearby Pontcysylte as a World Heritage Site, to renew itself without turning its back on its heritage. Interestingly enough, the original Cefn Mawr was built in terraces linked by steps down the hillside. Cefn Mawr and Bargoed might have a useful dialogue.
The conference had begun with a most lively contribution by Carole-Anne Davies, chief executive of the Design Commission for Wales. The Commission champions architecture, and promotes good design standards in the context of wider concerns for energy self-sufficiency, access to employment and good housing. All the regenerated town centres in the world would be worthless if they were produced with gimcrack materials and without attention to the importance of good design. Her optimism qualified the gloomy thoughts I entertained halfway through. Wales has plenty to shout about: there is an abundant supply of good quality building materials; Pontypridd has house and shop frontages ‘to die for’; Dolgellau has a beautiful shape; the townscape of Tonyrefail is remarkable; Ironbridge was not a patch on Merthyr Tydfil; Ruthin sold 15 different varieties of scone and Llandeilo had the Salvador Deli! “Every town centre should be treated as if it is a world heritage site”, she suggested, a sentence which might suitably be used to sum up the day. Actions, however, speak louder than words, and it would be good to know what conference members will do with the stimulus they were given.