Tom Hindmarch, stakeholder engagement at iNetwork chaired a panel discussion on sustainable growth in town centres as part of Net Zero Week. To discuss this topic Tom was joined by Antonia Jennings, Associate Director at Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES), Paul Hatch, Principal Planning Officer at Lancaster City Council, and Naomi Harnett, Delivery Manager at East Devon District Council.

Setting the scene for the discussion panellists initially discussed what sustainable town centres look like, highlighting the importance of diversity, adaptability, resilience, safety, and accessibility. They also emphasised the need for good build quality and design, and the promotion of sustainable modes of transport.

Following the initial discussion, Tom went on to discuss specific projects with each of the panellists. Firstly Tom discussed Community Wealth Building, a core concept at CLES, with Antonia. Antonia explained Community wealth building is a concept that focuses on the redistribution and retention of wealth within a local area for the benefit of the community. It is an approach to economic development that seeks to create more inclusive and sustainable local economies. The main goal is to ensure that the wealth generated within a community stays within that community and is used to promote fair and equitable outcomes. Antonia noted it originated in the North West city of Preston, with community wealth building often being referred to as the Preston Model.

In 2019 both Lancaster City Council (LCC) and East Devon District Council declared a climate emergency. Firstly, Paul explained how it has impacted his practice and the project that the council prioritises.  

Paul highlighted LCC initiated actions such as electrifying the bin fleet, establishing solar farms on council-owned land, and investing in electric charging infrastructure. The council also focused on retrofitting council-owned buildings to create low-carbon opportunities. In terms of planning, Paul explained, they conducted a partial review of the local plan to strengthen their approach to mitigating and adapting to climate change. This involved enhancing construction and design standards, promoting passive house or similar energy-efficient standards, incorporating sustainable drainage systems, and integrating green and blue infrastructure in new developments.

Following on, Paul discussed town centres of Lancaster and Morecambe, highlighting the differing challenges in each centre. Morecambe, a Victorian resort, has faced challenges common to seaside towns, striving to maintain its visitor appeal and sustainability. Paul mentioned recent developments, such as the investment and interest from the Eden North project, offer transformative possibilities for Morecambe. This project could re-establish the town as a resort centre and provide educational opportunities regarding its marine environment.

Lancaster, on the other hand, prides itself on its independent character, particularly in terms of retail and food and drink offerings. Paul noted efforts are being made to enhance its independence and support local businesses. However, accessing the city centre is a challenge due to constraints imposed by a one-way system. Collaborative efforts with Lancashire County Council aim to improve sustainable travel options, such as cycling and walking, to make the city centre more accessible and reduce carbon emissions.

Paul explained on a more local level the South Lancaster region was identified as a strategic development site, and the government designated it as the location for the Bailrigg Garden Village. An area action plan is being prepared to establish a detailed planning framework for the garden village’s evolution. This project presents an opportunity to create a new settlement from scratch, considering holistic aspects such as transportation, desired amenities, and a low-carbon approach.

On a similar vein Naomi discussed the work of Exeter East Devon’s enterprise zone and the creation of Cranbrook Village.

Naomi explained the enterprise zone was established in alignment with strong sustainability objectives, aiming to become the greenest enterprise zone in the country. The initiative emerged from a previous growth point program that focused on creating jobs to support housing developments, with ambitions for 10,000 homes and 10,000 jobs.

Several sustainability initiatives are already in progress, including a green infrastructure program and a district heating network, which is the largest greenfields district heating network in the country. The zone also emphasised establishing robust public transport links, walking paths, and cycling options between sites.

Naomi highlighted the enterprise zone’s designation provided a valuable tool for developing a new town centre at Cranbrook, as it allowed the acquisition of a significant portion of the land to meet local needs. This enabled the development of a supermarket and addressed market failures, such as specific housing needs of the population. The zone also explored other tools, such as the potential use of Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL), although it was not necessary in this case. Naomi highlighted the zone is currently exploring modular builds as an option to test the market and remains open to challenging developers when proposed solutions are deemed inappropriate.

The discussion then circled back round to research from CLES, Antonia discusses research on decarbonisation in social housing. Antonia highlighted two projects that CLES has worked in the last couple of years.

Antonia explained, the first project involved mapping out the potential for housing associations in Scotland to lead the charge on retrofitting. By considering the size of the retrofitting market and the need to support the local supplier base, the project aimed to create a truly generative approach to retrofitting. Collaboration among housing associations, colleges, councils, and the Scottish government was highlighted as crucial for success. The project showed that housing associations, with their economies of scale, could lead the way in creating employment opportunities and addressing fuel poverty.

The second project, called Oldham Energy Futures, focused on community-led energy planning in partnership with Oldham Council and Carbon Co-ops. Through a year-long engagement process, the project aimed to determine how the community envisioned the energy transition in their area. It emphasized the importance of community engagement, recognizing that communities hold valuable insights and can co-create solutions. Community engagement not only builds buy-in for the agenda but also initiates behaviour change and mitigates community resistance.

Antonia argued that the two project highlight the importance of community engagement. She stated community engagement should be valued and integrated into the planning and policy development processes, rather than being treated as a superficial add-on.

To close the discussion, the panel debated Antonia point around the need and importance of community engagement with regards to promoting sustainable growth.  The panel agreed the goal is to engage a diverse range of people and communities in the decision-making process. However, they also agreed there are a number of key groups that are more difficult to engage such as young people and elderly and the public sector must strive to do better to ensure engagement is tokenistic.

The topic of town centre and urban development is a key priority on the Transforming and Innovating Public Services (TIPS) programme and will be discussed further throughout the delivery year.