Unlocking towns and cities in the UK

Dan Davies, Co Founder and Director at Metis

This article first appeared on Propel’s Friday opinion on March 29

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It’s no secret that investment in cities goes hand-in-hand with growth of communities and economies. Less understood is how to apply this simple insight to the UK’s smaller, often-overlooked locales. 

With London’s industries and services undeniably over-saturated, and other major cities following in the capital’s footsteps, isn’t it time to turn focus to the burgeoning potential of smaller towns across the country? 

One example is Cheshire’s Warrington. Nestled between Manchester and Liverpool, the town has inevitably been overshadowed by the neighbouring urban centres. 

But now, with its well-connected position and a population quickly climbing toward 210,000, Warrington is brimming with potential of its own. And while other UK towns reach a similar cusp, the opportunities surrounding Warrington have been perceived - by public and private sectors alike - as compelling, rather than too challenging to tackle. 

The solution for unlocking Warrington takes shape as Time Square: the £110 million mixed-use development driven by Warrington & Co, on behalf Warrington Borough Council and development manager Muse Developments. Due for completion in the first quarter of 2020, the scheme will serve as a new beating heart of retail and leisure - sensitively developing Warrington into a destination in its own right, rather than a satellite to Liverpool and Manchester.

Attracting locals and regional visitors alike, the scheme is set to significantly drive footfall in the town centre with first-rate dining, a 13-screen Cineworld complex, Grade A offices, a social public square and ample car-parking. Time Square also incorporates the town’s historical elements, with older façades respectfully repurposed to house a contemporary, European-style market and food hall offering - expected to drive 25,000 visitors per week alone. 

In the midst of unpredictable times for the British high street, this budding development is one to pay attention to. Warrington has not been immune to the challenges of bricks and mortar, with Bridge Street, the town’s key retail thoroughfare, on slow decline due to the lure of online shopping and the draw of the two major neighbouring cities. But thanks to Time Square’s unique and cohesive funding structure, M­­­­­use Developments has the ability to deliver a vibrant and appealing scheme which simultaneously meets the Council’s key revitalisation objectives for Warrington. And with public and private working together - and a strong sense of ownership from both sides - the results will be transformative for the town. 

Inevitably, a ripple effect of tangible benefits will be felt by the Warrington community. Time Square has already created close to 400 construction jobs, and upon completion, will mirror this number in employment opportunities across the development’s leisure, retail and restaurant line-up. It’s also set to increase Warrington’s catering market potential by 14% to £68.5 million, and has been a catalyst to prompt other regeneration activity across the town.  And it goes without saying that it will transform the routines and behaviours of those in the local catchment - creating a central hub of activity, rather than a reliance on out-of-town prospects. 

As the 2018 Cineworld deal shows, the scheme has inherent appeal to major operators. Despite this, great value will be placed on getting the tenant mix right in order to fuel the development’s long-term vision. This forward-thinking approach will see Muse Developments and Warrington Borough Council selectively focus on the next generation of food and beverage occupiers, particularly independents and regional groups, to enhance the Time Square’s dynamic appeal. 

As we tackle big questions about the future of our cities and communities, strategic placemaking such as this could be the answer. With its collaborative and relevant approach to investment, Time Square is an exciting model for overlooked towns and cities - in the UK and beyond - which are hungry for a renaissance.