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Mon, 6 April 2020

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After the Coronavirus crisis passes, town deals should form a vital part of the recovery

After the Coronavirus crisis passes, town deals should form a vital part of the recovery

Town deals present a brilliant opportunity and one which if grasped will rejuvenate not just seaside communities but our smaller towns too, writes Baroness Valentine. PA Images

4 min read

Let’s use the town deals to spread the regenerative seaside spirit and unlock a new entrepreneurial culture to spread wealth and opportunity – or to coin a phrase - ‘level up’ for all.

Last April, the House of Lords published its report on the Future of Seaside Towns. What we found was telling. Many of the communities felt left out of the prosperity of our successful cities. There was a disconnect. Many had lost speedy and effective transport links, bus services were in retreat, educational attainment levels were poorer, access to health care was often difficult, retraining for new employment was hard to access, and public services had declined and, in many cases, were withdrawn. We recommended that the Government extended its town deals to cover towns like Blackpool. We hoped that others would be offered the option and provided with financial freedoms and funding.

 When the Government announced a new tranche of 100 town deals as part of its response, members were pleasantly surprised, particularly as the deals came with a £3.6bn budget. Although the money when disaggregated works down to roughly £26m per town and deal, this is still a substantial programme. It is still not quite clear how it will shake down in terms of capital and revenue spending, nor whether this is a finite sum to be invested once or a continuing programme.

Nobody can be certain post Covid-19 what the UK’s left behind communities will look like given its potential economic impact. We do know that these communities have an older age profile, need economic regeneration, and experience middle class flight, low social mobility, poor educational outcomes, and lack transport and digital connectivity. Town deals should form a vital part of a National Economic Recovery Strategy that will be needed when the current crisis passes.

The Prime Minister and the Secretary of State Robert Jenrick have both expressed optimism in terms of what the town deals can deliver for the communities the funding covers. We need to capitalise on that optimistic spirit and create mechanisms and projects that are genuinely transformational. But how can the UK’s so-called left behind communities make best use of this new deal for our towns? What strategy works best, and how can they make effective and efficient use of the money on offer?

To make the town deals work Government has said that local partnerships need to be forged utilising local councils, the LEP’s and business. Rightly, they insist that each town deal should be business led but focus on the ‘place’ the deal seeks to benefit.

The town deal model that the government is pursuing has its origins in Blackpool, where Business in the Community (BITC) developed a Pride of Place Board. The Board featured major local and national businesses, alongside the local council and LEP, and it is poised to reform into the town deal board. The Board spent the last three years working to shape an ambitious prospectus for the town, aiming to regenerate and reinvent its economy. It focuses on areas such as building a new conference centre and 5-star hotel, increasing educational attainment through business mentoring in schools, improving transport and housing, and developing future jobs through exploiting a new undersea cable connecting Blackpool to New York with super-fast connectivity.

Can this approach be replicated elsewhere? BITC argues that it can. We have examples of placed-based campaigns across the UK and businesses are keen to be at the forefront. The government are seemingly in agreement, insisting that each town deal should be business led.

The town deals could, if well led locally, genuinely transform places. They present a brilliant opportunity and one which if grasped will rejuvenate not just seaside communities but our smaller towns too. Business wants to help.

The experience of Blackpool and its business led partnership shows what can be done. The long-term transformation in places like Bournemouth and Brighton was not achieved overnight, but towns like Blackpool can with a willingness make it. Let’s use the town deals to spread the regenerative seaside spirit and unlock a new entrepreneurial culture to spread wealth and opportunity – or to coin a phrase - ‘level up’ for all.

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