Whatever your political leaning, the proposed Towns Fund grants represent a huge opportunity for sustainable regeneration with green recovery principles at its heart. Designed to inject new life into smaller communities, the joined-up goals are economic, social, cultural and environmental.
The Government believes that older population centres across the English regions could be part of the renaissance which is turning larger cities into vibrant commercial centres and attractive green urban oases.
Our conclusion is that they can, with targeted strategic long term infrastructure investments.
The aim is to inject catalyst funding into 100 well-known post-industrial towns – mainly in the North and Midlands – and make them part of a rebalanced twenty-first century Britain where prosperity is not defined by postcode.
Level playing field
As part of its levelling-up agenda, the Government proposes a Britain with levelled up jobs, skills and business opportunities, plus state-of-the-art technology, transport links and communication networks.
But, as I hope to explain, we can add further benefits through long-term strategic thinking and a green recovery approach.
Wet and natural
One example is to reimagine many of our urban centres and incorporate highly-visible solutions such as Sustainable Urban Drainage Systems (SUDS).
Using hydrological know-how (https://www.enzygo.com/services/hydrology/) and “natural solutions”, we can create multifunctional landscapes that work hard to support nature and biodiversity (https://www.enzygo.com/services/ecology/) while also delivering economic and social benefits.
There is growing evidence, for example, that green spaces which provide flood protection with SUDS also boost our wellbeing, mental health, provide public and recreation amenities, enhance biodiversity and environmental quality, while contributing to property and land values.
I will be referring to SUDS schemes that mimic nature a lot in this post.
Making small towns big winners
Initiatives like the Towns Fund, if executed well, can be real opportunities to help remove historic barriers, solve longer-term problems, and deliver a green economic recovery from Covid-19.
Later, I outline how Enzygo helped the small South Yorkshire steel town of Stocksbridge (our northern home) to prepare a bid with SUDS that recently won a £24.1 million grant from the fund.
Before that, I will outline what the Towns Fund is and the short- and long-term business, community and environmental gains it supports. I’ve also added at the end, a list of “deprivation” criteria used to select successful applicants.
At the same time, I will show how green infrastructure and environmental and water management projects like SUDS tackle broader issues – the climate emergency and extreme weather events.
Small is beautiful
The fund can be viewed as a smaller version of large urban regeneration programmes that are transforming metropolitan centres like London and Manchester and Birmingham.
The Prime Minister has defined the key ingredients as:- ‘liveability’ – safe streets, affordable homes, jobs and public services; ‘connections’ – broadband, transport and cross-fertilising ideas between people; ‘culture’ – arts, entertainment, sports and music; and ‘power’ – responsibility and accountability.
Green business benefits
Can we be optimistic about putting new life into well-worn towns?
Yes, we can. Old urban areas may have entrenched problems. But many, or most, have very promising futures. The business benefits of green regeneration are a good starting point.
Many aging towns cluster around derelict and redundant industrial sites that actually have huge development potential and can be repurposed as green commercial, leisure and residential communities.
Key investment barriers include overloaded local infrastructure systems, poor air quality, inadequate public amenity, plus a low quality of life, sense of place and employment opportunities. However, as society switches to green sustainable solutions, the possibilities are endless.
These include electrical transport, green hydrogen production, compressed and cold air battery storage, on-demand hydro-power, carbon capture, flood alleviation, rewilding, and a myriad of other embryonic technology and management solutions.
For example, there are profitable opportunities to install solar energy panels (PV) and wind turbines that can provide peak power, generate green hydrogen, or supply the passive battery solutions outlined above on the proviso is that strict local planning conditions are met!
Other planning priorities when refurbishing old infrastructure and creating efficient new home, business and civic schemes, include visual impact, noise and odour control, safe road access and good rail connections (https://www.enzygo.com/services/transport/).
Air quality is also becoming increasingly important (https://www.enzygo.com/services/air-quality/).
Designing multifunctional landscapes (https://www.enzygo.com/services/landscape/), and taking new urban environments that meet the needs of many different stakeholders through the planning process successfully, is an Enzygo speciality (https://www.enzygo.com/services/planning/).
Sustainable landscapes are also essential in a warming world where erratic rainstorms and heavy flooding increasingly disrupt community and commercial life.
They can help us to, firstly, reduce (mitigate) global warming impacts, secondly, build “bounce-back” resilience into local communities, and thirdly, adapt to (live with) unavoidable climate changes.
In fact, carefully-designed and integrated green infrastructure has a multifunctional role. It delivers public amenity areas that also act as SUDS “shock-absorbers”, storing, filtering and allowing clean flood water to seep away safely. The outmoded alternative is to channel water caught in flood plains via overloaded rivers to the sea.
The Government has added £200 million to the floods budget to support this new natural solutions approach to combating floods in England. Clever use of Towns Fund monies could complement this and help leverage funding and jobs by providing upstream services for other agencies and private enterprise through green bonds, or similar financial Instruments.
Meanwhile, back to the Towns Fund.
The Towns Fund
Times change. The 18th and 19th century farming revolution led on to industrialisation, coal, oil, gas and today’s digital information age. The next revolution – net-zero-emissions – will involve everyone in the UK.
The £3.6 billion Towns Fund launched in July 2019 is an important green entry point. In parallel with the Government’s Levelling Up Fund (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/levelling-up-fund-prospectus), it aims to balance up community opportunities across the country.
In his March 2021 budget, the Chancellor announced 45 of an eventual 100 regional towns and cities that will each be eligible for grants of up to £25 million from the Towns Fund.
They run from Bolton (£22.9m) to Bournemouth (£21.7m), Carlisle (£19.7m) to Colchester (£18.2m), Middlesbrough (£21.9m) to Margate (£22.2m) and Swindon (£19.5m) to Stocksbridge (£24.1m).
Lessons from the South
Some strong precedents for rescuing urban communities come from major cities that until relatively recently had endemic health problems, high unemployment levels and down-at-heel high streets.
London dock closures in the 1960s destroyed traditional jobs. But London Docklands regeneration since 1981 has created sought-after apartments, exclusive shops and large corporate headquarters.
The Lower Lea Valley was one of Britain’s most deprived communities, with poor infrastructure and environmental standards, until the 2012 London Olympics transformed and greened the area.
Lessons for the North
Manchester, built on the 19th century cotton trade, is now home for developments that include Piccadilly, First Street, NOMA, Mayfield, St John’s, Great Jackson Street and Spinningfields.
Its high-rise skyline is now blended with green initiatives such as “City of Trees” and green roofs in the ignition programme (https://www.greatermanchester-ca.gov.uk/what-we-do/environment/natural-environment/ignition/) leading to a growing number of integrated SUDS which are transforming the city centre and as part of much wider regional urban forest programme.
Sheffield’s flagship projects include Heart of the City, The Moor, Castlegate, Grey to Green, Knowledge Gateway, Riverside Business District, Sheffield Retail, Cultural and St Vincent’s Quarter – but also major infrastructure such as the Lower Don Valley Flood Defence Scheme.
Extra urban gains
As the pandemic has proved, the liveability of our towns has become a top priority where infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists is increasingly important.
It has fundamentally changed how urban centres and central business districts will function. Yes, there will still be some demand for retail and office space. But both will be significantly different and much reduced.
If we are to ensure that these space are vibrant and attractive places to be they must appeal to people through a mix of uses, from residential, employment, independent quality retail, recreation and leisure.
Green spaces, and our interaction with them, is crucial for our wellbeing. So innovative proposals, from the Nottingham Wildlife Trust concept (https://www.nottinghamshirewildlife.org/broadmarsh-reimagined) to the now very run down Broadmarsh centre, are great examples of an alternative approach and how the funds could be utilised
In addition to basic benefits, green-led infrastructure solutions provide further answers to a series of critical problems: –
– Flood defences
The focus until recently has been on protecting individual sites and properties from local surface and sub-surface water flows. Catchment-wide natural flood management solutions are now favoured by the Environment Agency (EA).
Such distributed flood defences cover all land and infrastructure areas in natural water flow systems like river catchments.
Marshes, sphagnum moss bogs, vegetation and woodlands are used to stop water running off higher ground until it can dissipate naturally. The aim is to “store” water in a myriad “small places” as part of “source control”. Where retained and no extraction is allowed, these also have the added benefit of sequestering carbon as peat layers accumulate to form a carbon sink.
Duplicating these natural systems by creating similar multi-layered landscapes paves the way for SUDS with land profiled into shallow swales, reed beds, filter trenches, retention ponds and basins that clean store storm water before it is discharged into the ground or wider catchment.
– Flexible SUDS
However, in high-density urban centres, SUDS can be more challenging.
Green roofs constructed over public buildings, supermarkets, factories and homes are now the first line of flood defence. As an alternative to hard below ground infrastructure, they can also improve air quality, foster biodiversity, support renewable energy, and even produce food.
SUDS is so powerful that it is seen retrospectively as possibly a more efficient low-carbon option than the new £3.8 billion 25km-long Thames Tideway Tunnel mega-sewer built under central London to handle extreme weather overflows. Operating costs and consumer bills would have been lower.
In Washington DC, green bonds schemes have been developed to fund the retrofitting of SUDS and green infrastructure. This is saving the municipality $-billions in storm water defence while massively improving water quality (DC Water’s Environmental Impact bonds https://www.dcwater.com/clean-rivers-project).
– New Northern Forest
Trees and leaf cover are important too.
In SUDS schemes, trees can help to control floods, improve air quality and cool hot towns and cities. Restoring our lost urban canopy cover is vital in a warming climate. Which is why the Enzygo team includes professional arboriculturists (https://www.enzygo.com/services/arboriculture/).
The “rain shadow” of trees prevents 35% of rain fall from reaching the ground. Roots break up soil so water can percolate into sub-soils, recharge aquifers and reduce peak flows with a more consistent water table. Evapotranspiration from a mature tree may be hundreds of litres.
The Northern Forest is a regional project (https://thenorthernforest.org.uk/). By planting 50 million trees over an area that is home to 13 million people, it aims to link five northern England community forests, from Merseyside to east Yorkshire and taking in Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds and Hull.
– Internet shopping – the green last mile
Online buying is also revolutionary. But guaranteeing deliveries at the click of a mouse means a major overhaul of global transport networks – with changes almost inevitable in most towns.
We can’t stop container ships running aground in the Suez Canal! But we are developing a new generation of neighbourhood distribution centres to make the vital last delivery mile punctual, cost-efficient and green.
Importantly, these local mini-hubs can potentially bring under-utilised buildings and derelict sites back into commercial use.
They can also host renewable energy systems that generate power on-site to recharge electric vehicles (EVs) and emerging delivery technologies such as e-bikes, robots and drones.
Stocksbridge – a strong levelling up case
In a practical example of putting the Prime Minister’s four key principles into practice, as a Sustainability Committee member Enzygo helped Stocksbridge to prepare its successful Towns Fund bid.
Stocksbridge is typical of many old mining and steel communities overtaken by time and geography. Steelmaking started in 1871. Today, the town produces specialist steels but has few other job, skill or business opportunities. Nestling in the Fox Valley within an attractive wider rural setting, its social and commercial infrastructure is outdated. The Towns Fund aim is to change that.
An investment of £24.1 million will help to replace old hands-on work with office-based 21st century jobs. Empty shops and derelict buildings in the Manchester Road area are being renovated. A new library and information centre will be added. Pedestrian access will be improved.
Three other bonuses include new post-16 year old educational opportunities, a ‘reliable’ bus service, and, of course, being home to Enzygo’s northern office – our southern team is based in Bristol.
None of these are green I hear you say. But there is an opportunity to use some of the funding as a catalyst for tree planting on upper catchment areas to improve water quality and reduce flooding.
This funding could be used to create a financial instrument bought into by public agencies and private organisations to provide new jobs in management and maintenance whilst helping to combat climate change and biodiversity loss.
Another example is the long proposed upper Don Cycle Trail (https://upperdontrail.org.uk/news/) linking Stocksbridge with Sheffield centre.
Parts of this route are incomplete, making the choice for cyclist and walkers a rough and ready TPT bike trial, or the incredibly busy and dangerous (from my own experience) Manchester road routes.
Strategic planning and delivery of this route would provide a low-gradient off-road link to the centre of Sheffield, allowing Stocksbridge to act as a gateway to the peaks and outdoor activities to complement Sheffield’s outdoor city brand. This would in turn create jobs in retail, leisure and support activities while delivering sustainable green transport solutions.
How were the first 45 chosen?
As a footnote, March’s selection decisions were based on an index of economic need published by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG), plus a list of English towns ranked by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) on an index of deprivation (https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/populationandmigration/populationestimates/articles/understandingtownsinenglandandwales/anintroduction).
The ONS’ Index of Multiple Deprivation (IMD) is an overall relative measure of deprivation from seven sources: – income; employment; education; skills and training; health and disability; crime; barriers to housing services; plus the living environment.
IMD ranks small areas in England from 1 (most deprived) to 32,844 (least deprived); it shows which areas are more deprived than others, but not by how much.
MHCLG then ranked the 541 most deprived by income and skills deprivation, productivity, exposure to Brexit and economic shocks, private investment levels and government funding eligibility before putting them into high, medium and low priority groups.
The final list of 40 high, 49 medium and 12 low priority candidates were then weighed against having coast settings, poor transport links, good geographical locations and investment or growth potential.
Stocksbridge was in this low category but made a powerful investment case.
It is clear that one size will not fit all. However, many of these towns have the infrastructure needed to repurpose their old industrial sites to new green solutions. This could include industrial sites dedicated to green hydrogen production and storage, gas works to new compressed/cool air passive battery solutions (https://www.thegreenage.co.uk/tech/liquid-air-storage/), or the conversion of old warehouse sites to urban farms/aquaculture solutions (https://www.growupfarms.co.uk/our-history/).
The Towns Fund provides an opportunity to kick-start a green sustainable recovery for many selected towns. It just needs the strategic thinking and political will to deliver innovative and long term solutions which will benefit these areas into the future.
At Enzygo our services and experience in renewable energy, processing facilities, commercial residential and transport infrastructure sectors across the UK can be used to help get many of these ideas and concepts off the ground.
Graham Bailey, Associate Director Landscape, Enzygo