For High Street revival, the Sense of Place needs a Sense of Purpose, by Jack Brereton MP

Little raises local hopes, and local concerns, like the future of our historic High Streets. We all know that purpose-built out-of-town shopping and internet retail have taken their toll on the High Streets sense of place, but we also know that no-one would want to lose the convenience of either of these sources of competition. So we need to (re)discover the High Street’s sense of purpose if we are to save its heritage and local sense of place.

Local is good: the paradox of today’s international tourism market is that people who can travel anywhere in the world often actually want to go to places that are unlike anywhere else on earth. Well, there’s nowhere in the world like Stoke-on-Trent for a skyline of bottle ovens, chimneys and our eponymous Potteries. And I think that our sense of purpose as a city of manufacturing – of which world-class ceramics backstamped Made in Stoke-on-Trent is emblematic – is the key to securing our future and restoring our sense of place.

I am delighted, in that regard, that Stoke-on-Trent will be the home for the new Office for Place, a formal and legally constituted arm’s length public body with a mission “to help councils create beautiful, successful and enduring places”. And it is clear that a lot of councils do need that help.

There is a shortage of officers with the right skills in the field of heritage – particularly in enforcement of what is known as section 215 to spur action on neglected buildings. There is also an awful lot of entrenched thinking in planning and highways departments that are holding High Street revival and reinvention back.

The “sticks” like s215 are sadly needed, because sometimes even generous “carrots” like funding from the Heritage Action Zones and Historic England’s Partnership Schemes in Conservation Areas are an insufficient lure. This is especially the case when it comes to absentee landlords.

In my constituency, the whole of the Longton Town Centre Conservation Area is on the At Risk register and rated “very poor” by Historic England. This is the culmination of decades of inaction, underinvestment and decline and a preference for tinkering at the edges. This has to change.

Sense of Purpose

Ceramics sector GVA has doubled in real terms since 2010, and our sense of purpose and pride as The Potteries can again sustainably define our sense of place – levelling us back up to where we were as an economic and manufacturing powerhouse when the impressive High Streets were built in the first place. But we have much more to do.

Delivering Government-funded but Covid-delayed schemes is now key. The Levelling Up Fund transformation of Longton’s derelict Crown Works, for example, and the transport infrastructure improvements under the Transforming Cities Fund. The wider public realm must encourage people to use the buildings that are saved, and the buildings that are saved (and converted) must attract a much-needed town centre residential population for whom the High Street would be convenient retail.

We must rethink the 1960s gyratory systems that undermined many town centres as places to dwell and left them more as places to drive through. In Longton I want to re-establish the historic upper market square – Union Square – to its purpose as a public square, from an overengineered traffic thoroughfare that detracts from the town.

Alongside the right permanent public realm – designed to enable dwell time – we need to simplify restrictive planning use categories and regulations that stymie attractive temporary uses and events that encourage dwell time. I would like local authorities to be given powers to designate all commercial properties within town centre boundaries to class E, mixed use.

With the right Sense of Place, driven by a rooted Sense of Purpose, I believe we can turn our declining High Streets around. Coherence, delivery and enforcement are key, with an enticing mix of quality permanent public realm and interesting temporary events. If the public sector gets that right, it will attract the right businesses from the private sector with the dynamism to build and respond to a loyal base of local consumers and an eager market of visitors from further afield. Levelling back up with new opportunities and bringing the living local heritage offer back to life.

Jack Brereton MP

Jack Brereton is the Conservative MP for Stoke-on-Trent South (2017-) and was previously a city councillor. He is a member of the Transport Select Committee. He led a Westminster Hall debate on Heritage High Streets on 13th September.