Achieving a Suburban Renaissance

July 23, 2007

I would like to draw everyone’s attention to the recently published report by Ben Kochan and the TCPA (Town and Country Association) ‘Achieving a suburban renaissance – the policy challenges’ (Kochan_2007). It is a highly pertinent and up-to-date review of the current policy challenges to improving the UK’s suburbs. Following are some points in the report of particular relevance to our project:

Suburban district centres: the report flags the relevance of fine grain analysis in relation to regeneration – “URBED’s study for the South East of England Regional Assembly, which contributed to the Assembly’s policies on suburbs in the South East Plan, developed a finer-grain approach to suburban regeneration: ‘We took an approach that is based on identifying neighbourhoods, and put forward the idea of ‘neighbourhood revival’ as a more realistic alternative to suburban renaissance.’ It advocates a neighbourhood based approach, which focuses attention on an area’s particular needs or potential.” (page 12).

Causes of deprivation: these are seen as stemming in some cases from industrial decline – “There are several causes of suburban decline and deprivation: Many industrial suburbs have not yet recovered from the loss of their major employment source, particularly light and heavy industry, and have quite high levels of long-term unemployment and people on disability benefit as a result. This is particularly the case in places like Wealdstone in Harrow and Radcliffe in Bury.” (page 32).

The utility of targeted improvements – “Since the SRB [Single Regeneration Budget – deemed more flexible for small regeneration funds, where a small grant can make a relatively significant impact], some local authorities have used their own funds and a range of other sources to improve their suburbs: Harrow Council points to environmental projects which have improved the appearance of the town centre, funded from its mainstream programmes.” (page 34; note Borehamwood is also mentioned as having benefited from such funds).

Fine grain analysis in relation to deprivation: The report raises the importance of understanding pockets of deprivation in supposedly prosperous suburbs and the need to study suburbs with a finer grained approach in order to not overlook declining suburbs: “The Neighbourhood Renewal Fund is limited to the 88 most deprived districts according to the Index of Multiple Deprivation. This has meant that the fund has benefited few suburban districts. The In Suburbia Partnership has been pressing for a finer-grain approach that uses the new Super Output Area data in the 2004 Indices for Deprivation for targeting funds.” (page 35): “The Government is concentrating public funds in districts with high levels of social need. Suburban areas are overlooked because their needs are not as widespread, even though there are pockets of intense deprivation. A finer-grain approach is required that reflects the concentrations of deprivation at ward level. Many suburban areas are on the edge of serious decline, and if they continue to be starved of funds, they will require major regeneration programmes.” (page 33).

The Future of Suburban District Centres (page 36-40). Kochan points to the district centre “often a long high street”, traditionally the heart of the suburb, “whose fortunes have waned over the years with the growth of out-of-town shopping”. He goes on to highlight the report by the All-Party Parliamentary Small Shops Group on the future of retailing, and one of its recommendations: “It recommends that they should also negotiate provision for smaller retailers as part of section 106 agreements on larger development. The report also calls for an extension of business rate concessions to smaller retailers, which it suggests could help councils to implement their retail strategies.” See also below quote from Savills on support for small businesses through business rate concessions. This section concludes that district centres: “require careful management to identify new markets and to expand their functions to stem the leakage of spending by developing shopping that meets local needs. This could involve supporting independent retailers and niche retailing which is not offered in the main urban centres. Local audits of districts are required to identify weaknesses and develop strategies to address them. There is a need for new forms of town centre management that secure input from the community as well as retailers.” (page 39). Note also reference to night-time economy: “With the growing night-time economy, the management challenges are spreading from urban areas to suburban centres. At the very least, this will require mainstream services to review provision in the suburbs. With the generally older population in suburbs, local authorities need to ensure that the provision appeals to that group and that the environment encourages older people to take advantage of the opportunities. ” (page 40).

Potential of suburbs for providing sustainable mixed-use (page 41-44), particularly bearing in mind complexity of travel-to-work patterns. There is an important discussion of whether suburbs can grow as work centres, with the existing poor local transport links and there is concern that a growth in housing in the suburbs will be at the expense of new employment opportunities. One suggestion, by FPD Savills, is “that commercial demand in suburbs is likely to come from small local businesses: ‘In the case of business space, that may take the form of accommodation needed by businesses that have started life in the garages and studies of local dwellings.’ The report says that ‘if it is deemed advantageous to have a variety of property uses in a suburb, special businesses rate concessions may need to be granted, and in some cases, more flexible planning use classes may be appropriate’.”(page 43) Other suggestions include preventing conversion of office buildings into housing. Kochan concludes: “There is some evidence that where suburban centres have good connections to one another, as well as to the major centres, they are economically more successful. ” and “Councils should also aim to encourage the growth of small and medium-sized knowledge economy enterprises that cannot afford city centre rents.” (page 44).

Conclusions: Suburbs no longer subordinate: “The term suburbia is no longer completely accurate because it views the suburbs’ role as subordinate to the urban area. The traditional view that sees the suburbs providing homes and the urban areas much of the employment and leisure opportunities is no longer accurate, mainly as a result of more complex commuting and travel patterns, particularly in London and the South East. Increasing the interaction between the suburbs and their urban areas, and between suburbs, would increase this complexity and could help to improve the viability of suburban centres. This can only happen if there is clarity about the distinctive roles for the different centres, and if strategies are devised to help them fulfil them. Travel between suburbs and between suburbs and their urban centres needs to be improved. The evolution of the city-region model presents an opportunity to review relationships. There is a danger that it will reinforce the suburbs’ traditional secondary role, but if suburban authorities and the core cities have a well-defined vision of the function of the different areas, they can be mutually supportive.” (page 49-50)


One Response to “Achieving a Suburban Renaissance”

  1. […] have variously been observing in the UK and US (e.g. gentrification researchers, Erenhalt, Kochan). Demographic aspects include more students, immigrants, singles and childless couples. Economic […]

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