New report says embedding heritage-led regeneration key to historic towns’ future

Embedding heritage-led regeneration within wider investment programmes aimed at revitalising high streets and enhancing local and regional infrastructure, will more effectively drive the growth and renewal of Britain’s historic town centres, says a new report from national planning and development consultancy, Lichfields.

The ‘Historic Opportunities’ report comes at a time of changing fortunes for the nation’s historic towns and sheds light on the environmental, economic and social contributions that heritage-led regeneration can deliver long-term for hundreds of locations across the country.

It considers how long-term thinking and a holistic approach to regeneration are keys to success, recognising that the most effective way to plan for strong and vibrant future high streets and town centres is through projects focused ‘more than ever’ on repurposing heritage assets in ambitious and creative ways to meet society’s changing needs.

The report builds on the themes contained in Lichfields ‘Moving on Up?’ report, which analysed over 100 bids for three key funding streams aimed at delivering town centre regeneration: the £3.6bn Towns Fund, the £1bn Future High Streets Fund (of which £95m is set aside for High Street Heritage Action Zones) and most recently the £4.8bn Levelling Up Fund.

This revealed that heritage-led regeneration is among six key themes underpinning these bids; the reasons for this are considered in greater detail within the Historic Opportunities report. The report demonstrates that when done well, heritage-led regeneration is not just an expedient ‘sticking plaster’ applied to cover up deep-rooted problems, it can be a powerful and recognisable indicator of change that inspires confidence, local pride and further investment.

Almost half of the current buildings in retail use and 33% of office buildings were built before 1919 with many of these suffering from chronic neglect or having been poorly adapted in response to various cycles of economic and social change. However, while targeted investment in the restoration and reuse of heritage assets to deliver wider economic and social benefits is not a new approach, the report finds that the way heritage-led regeneration is being implemented has evolved and is now far more complex and multi-layered.

The report highlights that the tendency to think that simply restoring historic buildings and adding new shopfronts and usable floorspace will be enough to deliver regeneration and attract new occupiers, has given way to more effective heritage-led regeneration projects that are predicated on clearer business and investment strategies. These are designed to complement and form an embedded part of wider investment programmes, which are aimed at improving local economies through investment in infrastructure, new industries and technologies.

Embedding heritage-led regeneration in this way harnesses investment’s potential to inspire action and promote initiatives as well as delivering more effective and sustainable regeneration results.

James Fryatt, planner and heritage consultant at Lichfields Newcastle office and the report’s lead author, said: “Heritage-led regeneration projects need to be focused more than ever on reusing assets in ambitious and creative ways to respond to people’s changing lifestyle, work and shopping habits. In the high street for instance, this will see historic buildings increasingly adapted to reflect changes in retail and growing demand for leisure activities, creative and flexible workspaces, and housing in sustainable and accessible locations.

“It’s also about bringing the history of towns to the surface, engaging communities in heritage projects and enhancing places with the aim of attracting new businesses, visitors and residents.”

The ‘Historic Opportunities’ report also considers two case studies – North Shields Fish Quay in the North East and Grimsby in Lincolnshire – and how they are now looking to a brighter future on the back of far-sighted heritage funding. This funding is continuing to revitalise these places as part of long-term regeneration strategies, which are delivering transformative change whilst also revealing a rich heritage.

Nick Bridgland, Lichfields’ heritage director, added: “This is an important report and comes at a time of rapid change for our historic towns. Heritage-led investment must be far more dynamic because it’s such a valuable tool for regeneration. The key to long-term success is to see it as part of an overarching holistic approach embedded within wider programmes of investment aimed at revitalising places that have been left behind.

“There are many positives on the horizon and our report points to a successful future for those historic towns that take advantage of the available funding and adopt a fresh approach to heritage-led regeneration work.”

Founded in 1962, Lichfields offers a range of planning services including economics, heritage, sustainability, and GIS. Its clients include local authorities and government bodies, as well as developers, landowners and operators in the housing, retail, leisure, commercial, waste and recycling and infrastructure sectors.

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