Regeneration game: Barnsley’s success in turning around its town centre

22 May 23

Barnsley’s town centre is thriving, bucking a national trend, following important interventions by the council.

Barnsley town centre

High streets and urban centres are vital to an area’s sense of ‘place’ – but news about them in recent times has tended to focus on their decline.

It is true that Covid-19 and the rise of online shopping, for instance, present challenges. Councils, in their role as place-shapers, can help their high streets meet these challenges.

Barnsley Council recently revealed some brilliant results in its town centre: that 76% of shops survived beyond their third birthday – a marked improvement from the 44% recorded in 2017.

It is the sixth best town in the UK when it comes to post-Covid recovery in terms of footfall and spending – with footfall in December 2022 being 46% higher than the same month a year earlier.

Footfall is now just 2% below its pre-pandemic level, while the national gap is 10%.

But just over a decade ago the story was the opposite: architect Will Alsop’s 2002 master plan to transform Barnsley, to which 15,000 people had contributed through a consultation, was floundering and by the time of the financial crisis around 2008 nothing had really happened.

Kathy McArdle, the current regeneration and culture service director at the metropolitan borough council, said that at that time some major retailers had begun to leave the town: “the council had to take control”, she told PF.

It began with the market.

“The Will Alsop plan envisioned the market at the centre of the life of the town – in the style of a Tuscan hill village,” she said.

“The market has been there since 1249, and was a focal point for the mining communities in more recent times. It’s part of the DNA of this place.”

The consultation also showed that residents thought the town needed a square “for public gatherings – for people to share and celebrate”, McArdle said.

Those two things have now been achieved. The £200m Glass Works project transformed the market, preserving the market itself while creating modern spaces for retail and leisure businesses, and includes a public square that opened in 2021.

“Those things envisioned by the people of Barnsley have become reality,” McArdle said.

Regular events are turning the public square into that focal point.

“Now we had this amazing public space, we felt it was important to animate it. We invested – not heavily, but well – and aim to have a ‘highlight event’ each month,” said McArdle.

“That investment in the events programme has really yielded significant dividends.”

In order to encourage a truly vibrant town centre it is also important to pay attention to the kinds of businesses that populate it.

“You have to ensure the diversity of uses. Trends in retail have been changing for some time. Yes, this was pushed on by the pandemic, but we anticipated it already,” McArdle said.

A mix of retail brands – global brands, regional brands and, in the market, a hyper-local offer – gives the area dynamism, she said.

“That’s important so we don’t become a generic town centre with all the same high street brands. It brings a real sense of place, character and identity.”

The council also wanted to do more work on health and wellbeing, and working with the NHS set up a community diagnostics service in the town centre, which McArdle said has improved attendance at screenings for breast cancer, for example.

“When asked, people say they really like having healthcare on the high street; it helps to normalise it,” she said.

Creating “an inclusive urban centre” was important: “A beautiful, well-signed public realm, a really sociable space that enhances the public perception of the town centre and ensures people feel more safe.” Plus connectivity: making active travel possible as well as ensuring public transport is available.

This also includes a safe and well-managed night-time economy – evidenced by Purple Flag accreditation for four years in a row – which was boosted by the introduction of a team of ‘nightlife angels’ and taxi marshalls.

Young people have received particular focus. A successful bid for £10.2m from the Levelling Up Fund will go towards creating Barnsley Futures, aimed at improving “cultural and wellbeing facilities” for young people in the town centre.

“We wanted to create spaces and places for young people to develop new skills for life and work, and make new friends – to use their leisure time in positive and constructive ways,” said McArdle.

“Young people in Barnsley aspire to lots of things, but they don’t always have the support to achieve that potential.”

The council has invested a lot of money, but the footfall figures paint a successful picture. 

“It’s a completely different place than it was, and we get positive feedback from all the people who come here,” said McArdle.

“It’s important to create a feeling that the centre is a place that belongs to people.”

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