How do you solve a problem like town centres: industry experts lead discussion on future of urban planning

A social and cultural evolution has prompted a fundamental rethink about how urban land in town centres is used, according to a cross-industry panel of experts.

Speaking at national contractor Willmott Dixon’s ‘towns and cities of the future’ roundtable in Chesterfield, the 11-person panel discussed the changing nature of urban regeneration and what the public are looking for in a 21st century town or city.

Using the Derbyshire town as an example, attendees concluded that – as with many towns and cities across the UK – Chesterfield has the raw social and cultural elements to meet public demand and expectations but is hamstrung by the lack of a USP and a declining retail sector.

Jenna Frudd, relationship manager at Willmott Dixon, said:

“Chesterfield is a prime example of a ‘hidden gem’ town – it’s incredibly welcoming and you have a local council and business community that is open to conversations.
“However, as with all towns, there needs to be promise of change and the excitement of active projects bubbling under in order to help it truly thrive. A collaborative approach between the public and private sector is key to getting to this stage and having this enthusiasm for change is one of the reasons why Chesterfield is well placed to make the right moves going forward.”

As part of a wide-ranging discussion, the group also analysed the role of funding and training, and deliberated the best approaches to continuing to attract young people to urban centres.

Andy Dabbs, director at Whittam Cox Architects, said:

“In Chesterfield’s case – as is the way with many towns of a similar size and situation – the biggest challenge is being able to attract funding that supports the longevity of the vision. They are on the right path, but there is a real need to attract the inward investment that will support great initiatives that will bring the town together, giving it a real USP.”

Spencer Ryan-Prewett, lecturer in business and management at the University of Derby, said:

“The impetus for change needs to come from education and understanding how we can target the young people of the town to engage in this mission. It’s not just about developing the right skills through modern methods of education, but also about talking to young people in a language that inspires them – the reality is that they’re not reading the Derbyshire Times, they’re on TikTok.”

Jo Neville, regional head of planning at Harworth Group, added:

“Working collaboratively with local authorities, students and businesses, it’s absolutely critical to keeping young talent in Chesterfield – or if they do leave, enticing them back.
“From our experience, councils are keen to work with people and businesses that are invested in their area. Our role is really about enabling and encouraging placemaking, ensuring that there is the right mix of people across our developments to help stimulate town centres.”

The future of the office was another key talking point, as the panel looked at how a changing approach to hybrid and in-office working will impact town centre spaces.

Rebekah Bacon, land and partnerships manager at Pulse Developments, said:

“When thinking about the new role that offices have to play, it’s really important to consider how they sit within the town centre and whether that is a space people want to be in.
“If people want to be in the office, this creates a huge ripple effect across the town, as people are already out of their homes and much more willing to engage with the spaces in the town centre.”

In summary, our towns and cities need a fundamental rethink in order to successfully incorporate a mix of retail, office, and leisure into their offering, effectively enticing people into the centres and successfully keeping them there, in order to thrive. The importance of the younger generation cannot be overlooked in this mission – providing education and training as well as a place they are proud to call home.

The panel was chaired by Liz Cartwright (Cartwright Communications), and featured Jenna Frudd (Willmott Dixon), Mark Deakin (Turner & Townsend), Amy Revell (We Are Spaces), Lydia Sadler (DLP Planning), Philip Riden (Chesterfield Civic Society), David Willis (Frank Shaw Architects), Spencer Ryan-Prewett (University of Derby), Rebekah Bacon (Pulse Developments), Andy Dabbs (Whittam Cox) and Joanne Neville (Harworth Group).