Pierre Botcherby, University of Warwick
Town centre regeneration, community, and the involvement of local residents
The high street is ‘the central arena in which the drama of modernity has been acted out’, a lived space where community is performed and reflected. High streets and town centres are the focus of various government initiatives such as the High Street Development Fund, One Public Estate, and the Stronger Towns Fund. Press articles regularly evoke difficulties faced by town centres and high streets, lamenting the loss of previously universal urban features: bank branches, independent local newspapers, recreation facilities, parks, pubs, affordable public transport … and – of course – shops, both chain and independent.
Town centre regeneration is particularly important in former industrial towns such as St. Helens (Merseyside), the focus of my research into de-industrialisation and community. Regeneration is necessary for such towns to find a new sense of identity and purpose in the post-industrial world. The involvement of local residents in the regeneration process contributes to the nature and sense of community in post-industrial areas; not, of course, that there is anything so simple as one homogeneous community or one concrete solution for regeneration.
Community is built upon various shared institutions and experiences such as employment, neighbourhood networks, and social spaces – including town centres. The erosion of one, for instance employment through de-industrialisation, impacts the others. Job losses and unemployment hit the local populations’ spending power, damaging the local economy. This poses questions of viability for local retailers and services, a further threat to the high street alongside wider issues of out-of-town retail parks and online shopping. People once bonded by similar working experiences and living conditions of mining or manufacturing have to generate different connections to maintain their sense of community. Industrial communities might have previously exercised agency through action over working conditions or against closure, an active manifestation of community where individual members came together to defend local/shared interests against outside ones. Today, regeneration policies for housing, employment, and town centres are a common focus for active community engagement.
Scholars like Alice Mah see opposition to and/or engagement with urban regeneration as the continuation of resistance to industrial closure – although in my research, this view is contested by local councillors and members of regeneration pressure groups alike. Whether or not these groups are the direct inheritors of 1980s and 1990s anti-closure campaigns, their success similarly relies on effective engagement with the wider local population, with the community. With anti-closure campaigns, part of the challenge was convincing locals that closure(s) would impact beyond jobs, risking ‘economic dereliction and social dissolution’ for the community. Regeneration pressure groups must likewise obtain and retain legitimacy amongst the people they seek to represent: ‘whatever powers they exercise […] are dependent on their level of voluntary and wider public support, and continually proving themselves to be worthy of that support’. Support gives weight to these groups’ campaigns and, when sufficient, can oblige local authorities to take notice, restoring the community’s agency if not guaranteeing its success.
High streets have a ‘functional and symbolic importance to the everyday practice of community’. They are at once ubiquitous – every town has one or even several – and unique: ‘a site of historical continuity with a capacity for negotiating social change in a local context’. They are both static and in flux: the shops and people come and go but the street endures as an anchor to local people’s sense of place and identity – akin to coal mines and factories previously.
Regeneration pressure groups seek to prevent the de-familiarisation of their town as a space. Similar to community as a construction of institutions, Neil Stanley evokes the ‘rhythms’ of a town and its inhabitants which are disrupted by the physical, social, and economic changes of de-industrialisation, causing a town to be defined more by absence than by what is there. The demand for agency in urban planning/regeneration reflects the community’s desire to ‘regain control over the ordinary spaces and institutions that mattered in their lives’, to maintain ‘their day-to-day material interests’ and the ‘coherence of their particular lived environments’. This ‘place attachment’ is particularly pronounced in the aftermath of industrial decline as familiar spaces ‘become invested with notions of family and community unity, nostalgia for a shared industrial past, and stability amidst socio-economic change’.
It would thus seem counter-intuitive to undertake town centre regeneration without including the individuals who comprise this local context and community. Indeed, policy makers and retail experts, such as Mary Portas, often emphasise the importance of local communities to flagging high streets and town centres:
high streets are the heart of towns and communities. They have been for centuries. People are passionate about high streets … The public sector alone cannot create vibrant high streets, however hard they try. There is also a part that landlords and retailers must play. And, crucially, the part that all of us can play as people that meet, trade and shop in high streets around the country. Together everybody is going to have to give a little bit to help our high streets to be vibrant and successful.
However, community involvement in regeneration is not universally supported. Phil Hubbard, for example, argues the community-led regeneration advocated by Portas creates social exclusion and gentrification:
spelling out strategies designed to make the High Street more attractive for those middle-class consumers who have generally shunned local shopping centres in favour of online and out-of-town retailing, but could be tempted back by the promise of a more ‘authentic’, bespoke experience .
Portas’ classist vision is ‘inherently nostalgic, hearkening back to an imagined era when the High Street served all […] propp[ing] up the myth of a more equal post-war society’. Some allege that regeneration pressure groups represent only ‘the articulate middle-classes in attractive urban fringe areas’, a notion underpinned by the derogatory acronym NIMBY (“not-in-my-backyard”) often applied to them.
The presence of regeneration pressure groups indicates a feeling of insufficient involvement in the regeneration process, despite the recommendations of Portas and others. This perhaps underlines Hubbard’s fears that community-led regeneration only involves certain sectors of the community. The approach Hubbard criticises is arguably far more entrepreneurial than community-led, driven by people spotting a gap in the market (i.e. middle-class customers who had deserted the high street) rather than by groups seeking to restore the town centre for the benefit of the local community. It is admittedly true that in St. Helens, prominent local groups such as Eccleston and Windle Community Residents Association (ECRA) and Rainford Action Group (RAG) did originate in so-called attractive urban fringes and were often focused, at least initially, on one particular issue – in both cases, campaigns over mass housing developments on greenbelt land around the town. However, my research so far indicates that these groups are far less one-dimensional and exclusive than their detractors claim.
Other groups, such as the Save Newton and Winwick (SNW) campaign, sprang up around former industrial sites rather than attractive urban fringes, in this case Parkside Colliery (closed in 1992 and scene of a two year long occupation by Lancashire Women Against Pit Closures). SNW were concerned with both the environment and employment for the local community, opposing the council’s removal of the colliery site from the greenbelt to allow the development of a Morrisons distribution centre:
no one is objecting to the development of Parkside and all would welcome increased job opportunity. [But] it appears that a development of this scale will definitely cause more pollution [and] congestion than jobs. As said at the meeting, ‘how many ex-miners can drive heavy goods vehicles?’
Though this last point could be suggesting miners would not be qualified for such employment, it more likely concerns the number of jobs at the distribution centre compared to the colliery. The Parkside Action Group (PAG) underlined the community protection stance of these pressure groups, a common feature with anti-closure movements, hoping ‘to find a more appropriate use for the footprint of the old colliery to better serve our communities and way of life and preserve the Green Belt’.
Interviews, meanwhile, have shown that groups such as ECRA and RAG are not simply single-issue entities. Their opposition is not to regeneration per se. They want to see the right sort of regeneration for St. Helens, providing suitable employment and an attractive centre for residents alongside housing developments. They fear incoherent regeneration policies would further impact the community, identity, and prosperity of the town. Houses built without the presence of aspirational jobs or a viable town centre would likely go to more affluent workers from larger cities such as Liverpool and Manchester – as opposed to people who live, work, shop, and socialise in St. Helens itself. This process is visible around many large cities, for instance London, where places as far afield as Coventry and Bath are considered commuter-belt. Even if new houses did go to local residents, there is a fear that these residents would be more affluent and more likely to work, shop, and socialise outside of the town. In both instances, St. Helens could become a dormitory suburb, a doughnut town with a weak local economy, and little hope of resuscitating a sense of community or identity.
These groups’ existence suggests an inability or unwillingness of local government to listen to local people. Residents were originally actively involved in the development of Local Plans when they first emerged in 1968, a 1965 report stating they should ‘help the public understand and take part in the detailed planning of their town’. By the 1980s, this was reduced to public consultation on finished draft plans, the Conservative administration believing ‘local authority planning was at best a waste of time and at worst inhibiting economic regeneration’. No longer a ‘bridgehead for the public into the local government stronghold’, a way to make local authorities provide services that ‘respond to peoples’ needs’, people lost confidence in Local Plans and increasingly came together to form pressure groups.
These groups demonstrate the desire of at least some local people to engage with community and defend local needs and interests; their success likely dependent on their ability to mobilise the wider local community. Groups such as ECRA have noticed amongst people attending their events a sense of relief and delight that a feeling of community is returning. In Rainford, the potential fruits of local communities working with local authorities have been shown through a range of popular initiatives such as the Rainford Business Hub and annual events like Rainford in Bloom or Walking Day, all of which rely heavily on community volunteers and bring residents together in the space at the heart of the village.
Whether through association with groups such as ECRA or RAG or through participation in events and initiatives like those in Rainford, an appetite for active engagement with community exists in St. Helens. Whilst not necessarily the direct inheritor to earlier anti-closure campaigns, as suggested by Mah, there is a shared objective of protecting/engaging the wider community and defending local needs and interests. This is not necessarily a fight to resurrect the town’s working-class past but it is a fight to retain agency and, in turn, a sense of identity and community. Local involvement in the regeneration process provides the opportunity to re-foster the sense of community so many thought lost with the industrial decline of previous decades.
 Pasi Falk, Colin Campbell, ‘Introduction’ in: Pasi Falk, Colin Campbell (eds.), The Shopping Experience, (Sage, London, 1997), pp.1-2. ; Sam Griffiths, ‘The high street as a morphological event’, in: Laura Vaughn (ed.), Suburban Urbanities: Suburbs and the Life of the High Street, (UCL Press, London, 2015), p.32.
 Tom Hansell, After Coal: Stories of Survival in Appalachia and Wales, (West Virginia University Press, Morgantown, 2018), p.6.
 Des McNulty, ‘Local dimensions of closure’, in: Tony Dickson, David Judge, The Politics of Industrial Closure, (Macmillan, Houndsmills, 1987), p.38. McNulty talks of ‘multiplier effects’: the ‘linkage multiplier’ of job losses in one industry putting strain on other industries and the ‘income multiplier’, described above.
Alice Mah, Industrial Ruination, Community, and Place: Landscapes and Legacies of Urban Decline, (University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 2012), pp.69-97.
Des McNulty, p.50.
David Beetham, The Legitimation of Power (2nd ed.), (Palgrave Macmillan, Houndsmills, 2013), pp.274-275.
Sam Griffiths, p.36.
Neil Stanley, The Ruin of the Past: Deindustrialization, Working-Class Communities, and Football in the Midlands, UK, 1945-1990, (PhD Thesis, University of Western Ontario, 2017), pp.136, 138.
Sarah Mass, ‘Commercial heritage as democratic action: historicising the ‘save the market’ campaigns in Bradford and Chesterfield, 1969-1976’, Twentieth Century British History, 29:3 (2018), 460-462.
Alice Mah, ‘Devastation but also home: place attachment in areas of industrial decline’, Home Cultures, 6:3 (2009), 287-310.
 Mary Portas, ‘The Portas Review: An independent review into the future of our high streets’, (2011), pp. 3, 13.
 Phil Hubbard, The Battle for the High Street: Retail Gentrification, Class, and Disgust, (Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2017), p. 28.
Patsy Healey, Local Plans in British Land Use Planning, (Pergamon Press, Oxford, 1983), p.243. ; James Barlow, Public Participation in Urban Development: The European Experience, (PSI Publishing, London, 1995), p.2.
 Letter to local residents, 10.02.1995, A36.2 (P), St. Helens Local History and Archives.
 Parkside had employed nearly 1800 men in the late 70s and still around 800 remained when its closure was announced.
Parkside Action Group, Newsletter No.1, (April 2006), A36.2 (P), St. Helens Local History and Archives.
Tom Wall, ‘Tensions rise in Bath as influence of Londoners prices out local families’, The Observer, 02.09.2018, <https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/sep/02/tensions-rise-in-bath-exodus-of-londoners-prices-out-local-families>, accessed: 20.07.2019.
Interview conducted by the author with ECRA Chairperson, January 2019.
Planning Advisory Group, ‘The future of development plans’, (The PAG Report, MHLG, 1965) cited in: Healey, p.68. Local Plans were ‘to encourage strategic thinking about the way land was used and developed’. As well as their elaboration being devolved to local authorities, they were to be ‘the arena within which articulate citizens discussed with the authorities future strategies for the location of development’. They could be ‘the integrating device for local authority renewal programmes’, pp.65-66.
Patsy Healey, pp.94-95.
Interview with ECRA Chairperson, January 2019.
Interview conducted by the author with local councillors, September 2018. ; Martin Pilkington, ‘Rainford serves up community spirit’, Lancashire Life, September 2018, <http://www.lancashirelife.co.uk/out-about/places/rainford-community-1-5673573>.
Pierre Botcherby is a PhD candidate in the History Department at the University of Warwick. His research looks at de-industrialisation, post-industrial regeneration, and community. He is also Administrative Assistant for the Warwick Oral History Network.