Putting place at the heart of COVID recovery

By Will Temple | April 28, 2020

Continuing our global pandemic coverage, the next in the series focuses on perspectives from our Urban Solutions team in the UK.

In four short weeks, the UK economy has been fundamentally re-shaped by COVID-19. Although the government’s economic response package has dominated the headlines, local government has also quickly mobilized to provide support to both businesses and communities. Unlike previous economic shocks, nearly all businesses have been affected. Existing challenges around place and economic vitality have all been accelerated. Looking beyond the provision of short-term relief, local authorities will play a vital role in the recovery process as they strive to create thriving places which are more diverse and resilient.

Understanding local exposure and areas of vulnerability:

Recovery will need to be underpinned by robust data to understand the impacts on residents and businesses. There are already examples of where this has been implemented, including the Canadian Health dashboard which provides an interactive tool to help authorities identify high-risk communities. To inform this process in the UK, we have developed a COVID-19 impact exposure tool covering every local authority area in England.

Local context is important as each area will require a tailored response to define their recovery. Whilst London faces challenges around high-levels of private sector and self-employment, its young, economically active population will be a real asset for the city’s recovery; alternatively, other towns will face tougher challenges particularly those with a less resilient employment base and lower demand for commercial property.

Enhancing place vitality and supporting business

Town centres and high streets, which already had a strong case for proactive investment and attention before the virus hit, are where the economic impacts of COVID will play out most visibly. For many places, COVID-19 will speed up decline and bring long-term challenges into even sharper focus. High Street sales were down by 18 percent in March, which will increase challenges around persistently high retail vacancies. Remedies were already being developed but now need to be accelerated. In the short-term, local government will play an important role in identifying affected businesses and trying to channel the support they need.

Council assets have real economic value and there are a wealth of case studies showing how public buildings can provide jobs, attract investment, and ensure money is recycled within the local economy. Recovery strategies need to explore how public assets can provide free or low-cost workspace for affected or next generation businesses. Local authorities could also promote meanwhile uses in vacant or underused spaces to differentiate the offer and use the high street as a test bed for new enterprise. Evidence from London shows that where retail is just one part of wider enterprise mix on the high street, diversity has helped to underpin resilience.

By design, high streets are the center of a community and encouraging people back into centers will be integral to recovery. When it is safe to do so, local authorities need to build public confidence by making centers more attractive places to visit through a real commitment to community resilience. The public sector should be visible on the high street to reassure people and traders that normality is returning, to improve local access to essential services, and help to animate places.

There is also a unique opportunity to implement active transport schemes to make places greener, safer, and more welcoming. To avoid exposure to the virus, many people have chosen to access towns and cities on foot or bike for the first time. Whilst free town centre car parking is often seen as a solution to support high street businesses, there is a wealth of evidence showing the positive impact of walking and cycling on high streets, town centres, and other shopping areas.

Taking a longer-term view today: building case for investment

Long-term recovery and resilience will require serious investment. COVID-19 means that every area will have an investment case and competition for resources will be fierce. Existing capital funding pots such as the Towns Fund will take on increased significance. To access these, places will need to be able to clearly articulate the challenges and opportunities in their areas and evidence how proposed interventions will address them.

The fallout from this pandemic will have significant implications for the UK economy over the next decade. By getting on the front foot, local authorities can lead the fightback—putting placemaking at the centre of recovery.