Part 1. The latest proposals
The Shrewsbury Riverside proposals are the latest product of the ongoing Big Town Plan project. Those who have followed the project are often sceptical, but there is wide support for its focus on less town centre traffic, more open public space, access to the river and mixed development that could result in affordable homes in the town centre.
Why the rush?
Thriving town centres are lovely. But research has shown that they result from strong local economies, not the other way round. So why the rush to adopt these plans when we don’t yet have an economic strategy for the county that reflects the new realities post pandemic, post brexit and post climate emergency declaration?
Reconfiguring Shropshire Council buildings is needed as the workforce has reduced and working patterns are changing. A town centre civic hub – as proposed (plot 03 on fig. 1 below) might be right, but evidence produced by ‘Save our Shirehall’ suggests council figures for upgrading that building might be wildly over the top. There is also a case for relocating some functions to other towns in the county, so the rush to build a new civic centre is questionable.
The environmental costs of redevelopment (i.e. demolition followed by new building) are huge. Many now promote a renewal, ‘Retro First’ approach. But we know developers with deep pockets will be promoting ‘redevelopment first’. It’s not clear that a renewal programme has been effectively considered.
For the whole town centre there is a huge challenge to decarbonise heating. A town centre heat network, using heat pump technology, is a real possibility but despite proposals from Zero Carbon Shropshire the feasibility work has not yet been done. Any major redevelopment work in the town should await the outcome of this work, but it gets no mention.
The commitment to reduce through traffic is welcome. Better public transport and active travel options can produce the needed changes in transport habits. But we need to be absolutely clear that we don’t need the North West Road for this. Up to now Big Town Plan partners, especially Shrewsbury Town Council, have said this explicitly. Any linking of riverside development to the NWR will face opposition and could break the Big Town Plan partnership.
Many remain suspicious of the lack of clarity on bus station provision. Council leaders have recently been at pains to say there will be a bus centre of some sort, due in large part to successful campaigning by people from across the county – something Greens will continue to support (see ‘potential bus facilities’; Plot 09 below).
But we still await the outcome of three vital pieces of work on transport, a new ‘Movement Strategy’ for Shrewsbury, a countywide Local Transport Strategy, and, nestled within both, a Local Cycling and Walking Infrastructure Strategy. Surely they should come before settling on a major town centre redevelopment plan?
Some opposition focuses on the financial burden to the council. The immediate cost that will come from adopting the proposal this month is for demolition work (£3.85m from borrowing), and further design work ( around £3.3m). Opposition politicians tend to play fast and loose with the difference between revenue and capital budgets, so it’s important to be clear that whilst borrowing does put a burden on revenue (and therefore on services) when it is being repaid, capital spending itself does not take cash from services. From a Green point of view, we need to be imaginative and brave with capital borrowing and spending if we are to switch our infrastructure to zero carbon, so, in principle, capital projects are not all bad, in fact they can be key to a local Green New Deal.
In this case most of the £85m or so overall costs are expected to come from commercial investment. Whilst this might reassure, it also makes clear how dependent any development will be on the commercial sector, for whom ‘build, build, build’ is a mantra. Meanwhile the regional Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) – an unaccountable private sector led body which gets to play with government money – is offering several million under their ‘Getting Building’ programme. So it’s clear there are plenty of profit seekers from beyond the county who will be pushing for this – and who will also be setting terms for their involvement. It seems likely this could conflict with residents’ aspirations. In particular, they may well demand extensive town centre car access and parking, much more than a sustainable transport strategy needs.
Whilst senior councillors and managers excitedly pour over 3D models and developer presentations, other vital work on the much needed economic strategy and ‘Shropshire Plan’ may well get downgraded, or, perhaps worse, be written to justify redevelopment rather than form the basis for any future development decisions.
Part 2: So do we need town centre regeneration projects?
Firstly, let’s define ‘We’; this refers to the communities of Shrewsbury and Shropshire – the motivations and needs of the council and of potential investors are not necessarily the same. Thriving communities need access to quality, meaningful, sufficiently well-paid work, restorative, comfortable rest and engaging and stimulating play.
Town centre jobs are not all in retail and hospitality. Some of the more skilled and dependable jobs are in services, from hairdressing to legal. The existing building stock in town is probably adequate in scale for these sectors, though it may not be in quality; energy efficiency is increasingly important to keep bills and carbon emissions down. Replacing this building stock is not an acceptable solution, either from a heritage point of view, or an environmental one. Here is a skills and work gap: bringing these buildings up to a standard requires new skilled workers and new types of local firms – in short, a growing local green economy.
Many town enterprises do benefit from visitors, so additional hotel space could benefit residents, but the way planning works means the council has to be hard-nosed to ensure such developments suit the town, are built to the highest environmental standards with the lowest carbon footprint, and contribute sufficient funds to local infrastructure. But we should also recognise that hospitality jobs will not produce the well-paid skilled workforce that local prosperity will depend on. Elsewhere Shropshire Greens have argued for an economic strategy based on green ‘community wealth building’. To repeat, only a skilled well-paid local population can keep the town centres vibrant.
The housing market is failing to provide the affordable and sustainable homes needed by key workers and to ensure a mixed demography with plenty of younger people. This probably does need new building. That this should include a good chunk of town centre homes with easy access to public transport and services is a good approach. But if people are to live in the town centre it must have sufficient open space, play facilities, food stores, primary health care and access to schools. The option to live car free must be made realistic so the proposed siting of homes near bus and rail hubs is welcome. Let’s also avoid giving precious town centre space to forecourts and garages full of underused vehicles by promoting e-car club membership as the back up to public transport.
It’s good to ensure we have places to meet and hangout, places to exercise, access to fresh air and nature, entertainment and learning experiences, places to join in with community experiences. It’s probably true that the town would benefit from some additional provision; performance spaces are lacking – there is a gap between the pub scale venue and Theatre Severn which could provide an offer that’s attractive to many of those people the town wants to retain.
There is no rush
Business As Usual is no longer appropriate or acceptable, but we haven’t yet got a clear line of sight towards a sustainable local economy. Meanwhile the cost of living crisis and the black hole in council funds demand immediate attention. Deciding on the future for council offices needs wider consideration, including proper consultation with staff and residents. Right now, working patterns remain in flux and even the shape of local government is in question from ‘levelling up’ devolution proposals. Pushing the Riverside plans from publication to a council vote in less than three weeks is unnecessary.
Extractive investors are not to be trusted
‘Inward’ developer led investment often means ‘outward’ profit flow. International cinema and hotel brands will look to minimise contributions to local infrastructure and reduce costs by cutting corners on environmental design. They will also expect a say in what their contributions pay for. Councils have been gutted of their capacity to stand up to corporations, with well-resourced operations and shareholders from anywhere expecting a maximum return. A good masterplan is part of our defence, but only if it includes red lines and priorities based on the community’s needs. These red lines should be determined by yet-to-be agreed strategies on transport and the local economy.
There is a way to build community wealth and wellbeing
Shrewsbury has remained relatively resilient in comparison to other places through the pandemic. This is best explained not just by the town centre ‘offer’ but because the local economy is based on a fairly stable small business economy plus substantial dependable public sector employment  with relatively resilient incomes – even if temporarily propped up by Covid-19 support grants (which for small businesses have been significant). Many towns and cities now see that developing skills and enterprises from the bottom up builds more sustainable local economies. There is much to do, in improving our homes and buildings, in providing affordable homes, in ensuring a vibrant active living, arts, wellbeing and lifelong education sector, and in attracting green tourism. Then there is the outward facing local firms that provide goods and services wider afield. Together, these developments grow the skilled well-paid jobs that can sustain vibrant town centres – across the county. Some of this may need partners from national and international brands, but they must not be allowed to shape our towns for us.
A local sustainable economic strategy, rooted in what is best about Shropshire, providing a roadmap to net zero, is needed first. The great danger is being led by the nose by developers to a result which will only suit some and could leave us with lasting damage.
 https://www.architectsjournal.co.uk/news/introducing-retrofirst-a-new-aj-campaign-championing-reuse-in-the-built-environment%5B3%5D Page 1 https://www.shropshire.gov.uk/media/4196/shropshire-economic-profile-january-2017-v2.p