Caption: The Parade, Sutton Coldfield
When M&S closed their doors in the Gracechurch Centre for the last time in January 2019, many of the Sutton Coldfield residents said that it signalled the “death knell” for the town centre. Then followed more shop closures, Sutton is dying a slow and painful death and that was before the COVID pandemic.
The town centre has needed an overhaul for the best part of the last two decades. It has struggled for many years to compete with the bright lights of Birmingham city centre and the out of town shopping areas like Tamworth, it is no longer the dominant attraction it once was. The town centre is typical of a 1970’s shopping area having lost its high street to a semi-indoor centre and pedestrianised street with shops rented by the usual high street names and is encircled by a three lane road, resembling a racetrack, forming a collar that strangles the town centre. Sutton Coldfield is considered to be an affluent suburb of Birmingham, but in reality this is not reflected in the quality of its town centre.
The shopping centre could be anywhere in the country, there is no placemaking, the public realm is shabby and there are few independent shops to provide that diversity to attract visitors, compounded by the usual problem of high rent and rates deterring small businesses.
And that was before the pandemic. Now, sadly, even more shops have since closed, and the visitor numbers have reduced to a trickle.
Caption: Brassington Avenue resembles a racetrack
Over the last 12 months Sutton Town Council have commissioned a team of urban designers to look at the issues the facing the town centre and to create a vision to transform it to a community focused destination that is fit for the next 50 years.
The community has been invited to contribute and there have been many consultation events and many interested groups have been involved. This in itself is nothing special and is, in fact, standard practice. What makes this project different is the involvement of the town’s residents from the built environment professions.
Sutton Coldfield is fortunate to have an abundance of intellectual wealth, where there are many graduates living in the community. It is a simple idea – to harness the local talent so the built environment professional residents can influence the regeneration of the local town centre.
It was the bright idea of local resident and architect Tony Whitehead. Tony is an experienced professional having worked for many years in the government’s Defence Infrastructure Organisation, he has been a Cabe Enabler and a member of many other built environment panels. He approached several local residents, including me as a Landscape Architect and Director of Fira and Dav Bansal Partner of Glenn Howells Architects, to become involved in influencing the shape of our local town centre.
It works like this: the local professionals have a wealth of experience and understanding of the issues facing the town centre, by harnessing the local talent the town benefits from the ideas and experience of the residents for free. It is an amazing resource for the town, orchestrated by Tony Whitehead, specialisms can be pulled in as needed and continuity can be achieved as the project develops from masterplanning to delivery, with the residents providing a long-term resource. The experts act as a peer group to steer the quality, offering advice and professional insight to the town centre manager, local politicians and has been welcomed by the Town Council.
It has been an interesting journey to date and still much more to do. We are all committed to seeing a rejuvenated town centre that is the epicentre of our community, with distinctive identity, that has a diversity of uses to cater for the whole community. At a time of great change, with the pressures of new residential development, it’s more important than ever that our town centres function well and act as a community hub.
The accelerated decline of our town centres and high streets post COVID-19 has seen the High Streets Task Force (HSTF) doubled its efforts to support transformation and rejuvenation of town centres. There are HSTF funded projects across England and there is huge investment promised to enable change. I would encourage anyone from the built environment to get involved in influencing the regeneration of your town centre, contact your local councillor or town centre team and offer your help, share your ideas, your experience.
President of the Landscape Institute
Director of Fira