The Impact of Environmental Improvements on Town Centre Regeneration

Article excerpt

Using an extensive series of questionnaire surveys targeting traders, residents and shoppers, supported by interviews with key informants, the paper explores the effects of environmental improvements on town centre regeneration in South Wales. Evidence reveals that environmental improvements create short-term problems with a time lag before benefits are felt; that they can accentuate and create spatial inequality with divisions between the improved and unimproved areas; and that environmental improvements are only a first step towards change. The improvements encourage private investment and it is the investment in new and improved attractions that is the critical second step towards town centre regeneration. Public investment in environmental improvements is undoubtedly worthwhile if there is a reasonable expectation of private investment.

Since the late 1980s there has been a growing interest in the development of strategies to regenerate declining town centres. In the UK, at least, the basic approach involved a combination of town planning controls to limit development outside town centres, coupled with positive action to improve the attractions, accessibility, amenity and management of those centres (DOE, 1994; HCEC, 1994). A proli®c practitioner and academic literature emerged concerning issues relating to the decline and regeneration of town centres and to disseminate examples of best practice. A conventional wisdom began to develop which asserted that in declining town centres an improved environment could help to maintain a town' s competitiveness and lead to an improved economy (Baldock, 1989; Dickins and Ford, 1996; Evans, 1997). However, despite substantial public investment in environmental improvements there has been very little research to explore the effects of such improvements on the commercial health of those centres in order to inform future policy development and investment (DOE, 1997). Given the large sums of public money involved, this is an important gap in knowledge. To help fall this gap, the paper explores the impact of public investment in the town centre environment on town regeneration in South Wales.

Town centre decline and regeneration strategies

The decline of many UK town centres has been an issue of widespread concern since the late 1980s (Bromley and Thomas, 1995; 2002; DOE, 1988; 1994; DTEDC, 1988; HCEC, 1994). The extent of the problem was suggested in a survey of 335 planning officers, showing that 19 per cent thought their town was in decline, whereas only 6 per cent thought it was vibrant (DOE, 1994, 5). The reasons for the decline have been extensively discussed and include the changing economy, the dispersal of population and employment, the changing competitive context, and problems within the town centres themselves (Bromley and Thomas, 1993; Wrigley, 1988; DETR, 2000c). The damaging effects of retail dispersal have been acknowledged in particular (Davies and Howard, 1988; Guy, 1994; Langston et al., 1997; Schiller, 1994; Thomas and Bromley, 2002; Wrigley, 1988). The growth of new retail formats out of town, in 'waves' of decentralisation, has been well documented and includes superstores, retail warehouse parks, regional shopping centres, warehouse clubs, factory shopping malls and airport retailing. Out of town centres have proven to be potent competitors to traditional town centres because of the wide range of goods they sell and the convenient, clean, safe and attractive, well-managed shopping environment they offer (Evans, 1997). Thus a combination of planning control and proactive action at national, regional and local levels has sought to address the factors that have influenced the decline of town centres.

In terms of control, the revisions to Planning Policy Guidance note PPG 6 between 1993 and 1996 reveal the tightening of planning control presuming against out of town development with priority to be given to development within town centres, or on the edge of town as a next best option (DOE/Welsh Office, 1993; 1996). …