Yes or No to City Status?

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Yesterdays decision by Wrexham Council to apply for City Status has stirred passions on all sides of the debate. Although the application process does not require a town to provide evidence of the economic benefits of becoming a city, much of the discussion in Wrexham and elsewhere in the UK has often been framed in economic terms.

There is no published evidence of the economic benefits (or disbenefits) of the award of city status, so to address this gap Wrexham CBC commissioned our independent study to specifically examine the potential economic benefits for towns like Wrexham.

The study found that the towns awarded city status have experienced economic growth, but data does not show that the rate of growth accelerated following the award of city status. However, the comparative analysis of new cities and towns suggests there is a potential for benefit where city status has been used to strengthen other economic and regeneration initiatives in an area.

We undertook a comparative analysis of towns similar in profile to Wrexham that’s have been awarded city status. The case studies shows that areas which have been successful in gaining city status identify a range of benefits including:

  • Helping to boost local pride which, in turn, may have economic benefits
  • Providing a new platform to promote the city and raise ambitions
  • Creating opportunities for anchor institutions, economic clusters, and sectors to raise their profile
  • Enabling some cities to attract major projects such as a university and enterprise zone, which they might not otherwise have secured as towns
  • Allowing relationships to be developed with other cities and helping them to collectively ‘punch above their weight’, securing both public and private investment and collaborating with Government on strategic issues
  • Providing a reason for, and focus for re-branding campaigns
  • Perceived successes in attracting inward investment – attributed to city awareness and the infrastructure and facilities they offer e.g. business incubator, high-profile local businesses and organisations, alongside city status
  • Higher expectations of placemaking with cities thought of as more vibrant places to live, work, and invest
  • Cities with an accessible rural hinterland are seen as very attractive places.

The evidence suggests the opportunity for a range of potential benefits for Wrexham from city status if it links such an award to delivering more ambitious place shaping plans and investment strategies, connected to local attributes such as the University, employment and transport infrastructure and cultural attractions.

Owen Davies Consulting with economic specialists Hardisty Jones Associates researched the economic benefits of city status.

Piloting a SMART town plan

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Imagine the same technology found on your phone helping to transform a town centre and business performance?

Smart Towns Cymru is a Welsh Government initiative to support the revitalisation of town centres. The aim is to connect businesses with the digital data and technology they need to better understand their customers, the users of the town and how the centre can be better managed.

The Year of SMART Towns is closely aligned with the Welsh Government’s Transforming Towns agenda and wider funding for town centres. Owen Davies Consulting is working with Smart Towns Cymru led by Menter Môn and Clive Davies, who has driven the adoption of SMART technology in Cardigan, to pilot a place-based approach to exploring with businesses the idea of creating a Smart Town Plan pilot for Abergavenny town centre.

A particular focus of the pilot is to raise awareness and understanding of smart towns. The pilot is not about businesses needing to understand the technology, it’s about providing a greater appreciation that better quality digitally sourced information can help businesses grow. Businesses in Smart Towns in Wales are already using smart data to simply inform their staffing, stock, opening hours, marketing etc.

The first step is to produce a Smart Action Plan for Abergavenny that prioritises opportunities and challenges in the town centre with the potential for smart solutions. Potential funding could be available for towns with a Smart Action Plan to implement the ideas identified by businesses.

To discuss our smart towns projects contact: Ieuan Best

Does granting City Status have a measurable impact on economic performance?

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Announced by the Cabinet Office in June, the Civic Honours Contest will see winning towns granted City Status for the first time in ten years, during May 2022.

In total there have been three rounds of applications for city status since 2000 – one to celebrate the Millennium and two for the Queen’s Golden and Diamond Jubilees respectively. Across these three competitions, a total of 48 towns in Great Britain have applied for city status and 9 towns granted the honour.

Towns awarded City Status

Although almost all towns that apply for City Status believed becoming a city would stimulate the economy and support regeneration, there’s very little published evidence of a measurable economic boost as a consequence of becoming a city. Research undertaken by Reading University (Reading has submitted three unsuccessful City Status applications) suggests the linking of City Status to economic success is mixed. For every place that experiences growth after becoming a city, there are others that don’t see direct economic benefits.

Working alongside Hardisty Jones Associates, we have been appointed by a Local Authority to investigate the economic benefits and disbenefits of being awarded City Status and we are keen to identify the measurable benefits that have been recorded in the UK.

City Status doesn’t come with any fiscal levers like tax breaks or extra powers, and with less than decisive evidence, our study has been commissioned precisely to investigate the economic impacts.

Even though the Governments guidance lacks detail, the competition application form is clear that an award will be made in recognition of historic and current achievements, associations, and civic status with no mention of future economic growth and performance. It seems that a town’s historical importance (and Royal connections), its role as a centre of government and culture, current economic strength are more important in becoming a city than future growth.

We are interested to hear of examples you may know of measurable impact on the economic performance following the award of City Status.

Carmarthenshire’s economic recovery plan

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Plans for Carmarthenshire’s economic recovery, which aim to safeguard and create jobs, support businesses and bolster the local economy over the next two years, have been approved by Carmarthenshire County Council. The Council has also backed up the plan with a significant financial commitment in support of business and the regeneration of the local community.

Owen Davies Consulting alongside economy specialist Hardisty Jones Associates modelled the future direction of the economic and prepared the plan after detailed assessments of the short, medium and long-term impacts of the pandemic alongside Brexit.

The recovery strategy focuses efforts on 11 key themes, with emphasis on maximising opportunities for local businesses and growing the economy.

It sets out the authority’s aims to help businesses replace more than 3,000 jobs that have already been lost during the pandemic and safeguarding and replacing up to 10,000 jobs that may have been, or are at high risk of being, lost when furlough comes to an end.

The council has also planned how it will support more than 1,400 businesses that are at risk of insolvency and the creation of about 1,700 jobs that would have been generated if Carmarthenshire’s economy had stayed on its pre-pandemic growth trajectory.

Four key priorities have also been identified, including a major focus on ensuring the county has ultra-reliable digital connectivity, digital culture and skills.

The Plan is ambitious about the long-term future of the Carmarthenshire economy with a belief that the county has the right mix of business, people and places to recover and grow much stronger than before. Carmarthenshire’s underlying strength is the large number of self-employed and micro businesses and the equally important number employed in the foundational economy. The Plan will focus on supporting our SME’s to upscale, and the local knowledge and connections with small businesses in Carmarthenshire means that it is well placed to bolster support within the local economies, increase local spend and maximise the potential for a more localised growth in community wealth and wellbeing.

In the short-term, attention will be focused on the food sector and supply chains that are suffering significantly alongside hospitality sector closures.

Alongside the economic recovery plan, Carmarthenshire County Council has launched over £5m package of business and regeneration support  for businesses, people and places in response to the economic recovery.

Contact Owen Davies if you would like to discuss the regeneration and economic recover of your area. owen

Our 8 tips for launching your own coworking space – and how we plan to grow ours

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As the world returns to work and the current COVID crisis slowly passes interest in coworking spaces is on the rise again. Certainly, more of us will work away from a traditional office environment more often. For some, after lengthy lockdowns, there is also the desire for added separation between home working and home life.

Politician and local authorities have eagerly embraced the idea of shared workspaces as part of their ‘building back better’ programmes and economic recovery plans. Here in Wales, the Welsh Government have swiftly adopted the policy of 30% of people working closer to home. And almost every town centre strategy or economic recovery plan we have read mentions coworking, hubs and reuse of empty property in the same paragraph.

Gwagle started in 2019 when we decided to take on our own empty town centre property to create a social workspace, establishing a new co-working community and helping to bring people back into our local town centre. We had a tiny budget but enough to buy some chairs and desks, install the broadband, equipped the kitchen and opened the doors. And 12 months later there was a community of 14 freelancers, consultants and creatives. The diversity is incredible with journalists, filmmakers, techies, designers, consultants, coaches and all sorts of creatives.

There were several reasons for launching Gwagle (in case you are wondering it’s Welsh for ‘space’ Gwag + lle), the first curated co-working community in Abergavenny.

  • We wanted to do our bit to help regenerate the local centre through repurposing a long term empty property whilst injecting some new people back into the town
  • To prove the concept worked in a small market town;
  • To convert ideas into action. Our regeneration consultancy doesn’t only write strategies and draw up impressive looking plans, we also invest our own time and funds to deliver the kind of schemes we encourage others to go and do; and
  • We wanted to create a community of like-minded freelancers, consultants and creatives eager for somewhere to work that wasn’t a quiet home office. Somewhere you can meet others, network, schedule meetings, and most importantly get your best work done.

How we did it? Here are our 8 tips for launching your coworking space:

  1. A great property and location – we spent over a year looking for good quality and affordable character property in the centre of Abergavenny, and we’ve learnt how important it is for our members to have the shops, services and hospitality venues on our doorstep.
  2. Superfast – We always get asked; do you have great broadband? There’s no compromising on this and in many cases our members use us to get away from the unreliable connection they experience at home.
  3. Nothing flashy – you can be a professional workspace without being flashy, and an ordinary and organic interior design is enough as long as there’s a big desk, comfy chair and it’s well-lit. Our focus has been on curating the working spirit that connects people and the social factors that make Gwagle different from staying at home.
  4. Flexible – it seems obvious but there are no clear work patterns nowadays so we are open 24/7 and 7 days a week and our users can come and go as they please. Having a flexible booking system and fees structure is essential. We’ve seen more interest from people wanting to use Gwagle for one or two days a week as part of a blended work pattern than those wanting their own full-time desk.
  5. Meeting room – our workspace is social with the background noise of activity. However, co-workers are asking for more opportunities to use private meeting spaces because considerably more work is taking place online through Zoom or Teams.
  6. Amenities – a well-equipped kitchen, ‘help yourself tea and coffee’ are a given. However, we have been surprised at the popularity of our bike storage area and having an office shower is a huge bonus and encourage cycling.
  7. Networking – There is nothing else like it; sure connecting and collaborating online is great, but you can’t discover and forge the same relationships through a screen as you can when you’re sat side by side with real people. Our workspace is relaxed and unassuming, creating the perfect breeding ground for discussion and ideas to be shared during those spontaneous chit-chats that occur in the office. However, it’s usually in the kitchen when the kettle boils that we most often get together and the creative conversations occur.
  8. Hosting – the workspace shouldn’t demand much day to day management but there must be an individual or business that plays the host, helps curates the space, makes sure new members are introduced, animates the office discussion, and keeps an eye on everyone being happy.

And what about the future?

We celebrated Gwagle’s first successful year in March last year with 14 co-workers and the week before lockdown. And despite facing huge strains whilst we were all instructed to work from home, juggling uncertainty with landlord negotiations and support grant applications, we can already see the sector bouncing back stronger.

Recently we’ve experienced freelancer retreating to working from home that has decided not to return but at the same time demand from newcomers that have recently moved to Abergavenny as part of the “reverse brain drain” away from cities as a result of COVID-19. There’s also greater interest from commuters looking for new hybrid working options closer to home as part of a blended work pattern.

We are interested in growing our space, taking on additional empty building and exploring the potential for the public sector and corporate occupiers seeking greater flexibility in the post-pandemic era, looking for on-demand office space that feels safe for employees. And with a growing interest in technology-enabled SMART towns we want to explorer how we incorporate IoT (internet of things) technology that enables Gwagle and our community to work better, faster and of course, smarter.

If you want to know more about how we started our co-working space, the impact it has had on our town centre and our growth plans why not get in touch with Owen? And details about our shared workspace

Owen is a planning, regeneration and local economic development consultant – making places more memorable, liveable and viable for over 25 years. With experience across more than 60 towns and city centre locations he was chosen to be a member of the Expert Panel on the government commissioned High Street Task Force in 2020.

Moving forward with public realm improvements in Wincanton Town Centre

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The town centre enjoys an abundance of attractive heritage buildings however, the Wincanton Town Centre Strategy which Owen Davies Consulting worked on as part of the team led by Chilmark Consulting identified that its footways and public spaces would benefit from  enhancement.

An improved public realm will support existing businesses by creating a better environment in which to trade and by providing improved spaces for community activities. A more attractive town centre will also help to change perceptions and encourage new businesses, more visitors and longer stays which will help to revitalise the town through increased footfall and spending.

The public realm designs have been prepared by Element Urbanism on behalf of South Somerset District Council will help to improve perceptions, support existing businesses by creating a better environment  in which to trade and provide improved spaces for community  activities. This will increase the attractiveness of the town  encouraging people to visit and stay longer, revitalising the town through increased footfall and spending.

You can view the full design package here

What do you think? Let Owen know, he’s is a place shaper and skilled regeneration consultant with experience covering over 60 towns and city centre locations across the UK. In 2020, Owen was chosen by the government commissioned High Street Task Force as one of their Expert Panel Member.


Making it easier for the high street to trade outdoors

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To support the high street, hospitality and tourism sectors, the Welsh Government are temporarily relaxing planning control to make it easier to erect and leave up marquees and other temporary structures, have street furniture outside businesses and change the use of a retail unit.

The ‘new temporary permitted development rights to support economic recovery’ published this month covers:

  • Temporary use of land is allowed for an additional 28 days
  • Use of land for the holding of markets by local authorities
  • Temporary changes of use to enable businesses to trial alternative uses within town centres for a short period of time
  • The use of the highway adjacent to premises falling within Class A3 (food and drink) for the purposes of selling or serving food or drink
  • Awnings over external areas where customers and members of the public congregate to be served food or drink

We have worked closely with the hospitality sector over recent years to champion the flexible use of outside spaces including our proposals in Cardiff’s Mill Lane and Swansea’s Wind Street. Planning and licensing rule can be a problem for business wishing to trade flexibly outdoors and this is an important temporary step in support the reopening of businesses and their efforts to create safe environments for the public using the high street, and spending with the hospitality and tourism sectors. However, the Welsh Government say they will be monitoring the impact of these amendments with a view to making broader, permanent amendments to the GPDO next year.

The link to the Welsh Governments Statement

Winners and losers – the Levelling Up & Shared Prosperity Funding for Wales

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There are clear ‘winners and losers’ in Wales when the new Levelling Up Fund and Shared Prosperity Fund map is compared to the previous EU Structural Funds. And for the first time since devolution local authorities can by-pass Welsh Government and bid directly to Westminster, and there’s a new funding innovation with MP’s helping to boost the number of projects funded in each area.

Announced with yesterdays Budget the UK Government published the prospectus  documents on how local areas in Wales can submit bids for the Levelling Up Fund and Shared Prosperity Fund (or Community Renewal Fund for 2021-22).

In addition to the controversy over local authorities being able to by-pass Welsh Government and make bids directly to Westminster for these funds, they were also strongly anticipated to be a direct replacement for EU structural funds in Wales. We have identified where these new funds are prioritised and compared them to the EU Structural Funds map of Wales.

‘Winners and Losers’

  • Powys is clearly the major winner having gone from a ‘more developed area’ outside of the main EU programme to a priority area under both the Levelling Up and Shared Prosperity funds
  • Caerphilly and Bridgend not included in the Shared Prosperity Fund priority area and potentially misses out on replacement EU funds.
  • Wrexham gains new funding opportunities through the Levelling Up Fund whilst both Gwynedd and Anglesey miss out
  • Flintshire, Monmouthshire, Vale of Glamorgan, Cardiff and Newport make no progress in the funding stakes.

Levelling Up Fund – impactful infrastructure projects – those that help bring pride to a local area – are often smaller in scale and geography: regenerating a town centre, local investment in cultural facilities or upgrading local transport infrastructure. Delivered by local authorities who can submit one bid for every MP whose constituency lies wholly within their boundary. Every local authority can submit at least one bid. While preference will be given to bids from higher priority areas (shown in the figure), the bandings do not represent eligibility criteria, nor the amount or number of bids a place can submit. Bids from other categories (2 and 3) will still be considered for funding on their merits of deliverability, value for money and strategic fit, and could still be successful if they are of exceptionally high quality. (targets 17 local authority areas in Wales)

Shared Prosperity Fund – EU Structural Funds will continue until 2023 and replaced through the new UK Shared Prosperity Fund (£1.5 billion a year). This new Fund, to be launched in 2022, will operate through the UK Government but to start with the UK Community Renewal Fund being provided for 2021-22. (targets 14 local authority areas in Wales)


Velo Park – enhancing Monmouthshire’s national & international reputation for cycle sport & tourism

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We’ve been working with Monmouthshire County Council and Welsh Cycling to prepare plans to create a ‘Velo Park’ cycling facility in the Abergavenny area to enhance the reputation of the town and county as one of the foremost cycling destinations in Wales. The initiative builds on the partnership with local clubs to promote grassroots cycling and high profile and successful national and regional scale cycling events held in the town in recent years.

In Monmouthshire, there is a commitment to increase the accessibility and quality of physical activity opportunities for all residents, with the aim of supporting healthy lifestyles for its residents and allowing them to achieve their sporting potential. It includes ensuring cycling is a mainstream activity, and for Monmouthshire to meet its National and International reputation for cycle sport and tourism.

Developing the physical infrastructure, making cycling safer, easier and more integrated across Monmouthshire includes a commitment to developing a Velo Park including a closed road circuit (CRC) to act as a base for cycling across the county. The facility will support the promotion of cycling for leisure, tourism, club and school development as well as national and regional level racing and event.

Our team* prepared the feasibility studies and designs for the proposed Velo Park which includes a mix of facilities suitable for road, cyclocross and entry-level mountain biking. The emphasis is on providing features that attract a broader range of users (families, leisure cyclists, competitors) to experience coaching, training, racing as well as recreational use. It will also be available for other wheeled non-motorised sports including running, roller skiing and use by wheelchairs and adapted bikes.

The design of the Velo Park has carefully balanced the sites sensitive landscape and ecology with the suitability of the terrain and nearby facilities to support cycling and wheeled sports.

The scheme design was launched this week to encourage the local community and stakeholder to comment prior to the submission of a planning application in early 2021. Details of the scheme can be found here

*Our team – we worked with Cotswold Transport Planning, Element Urbanism and HydroGeo

Becoming a High Streets Task Force Expert

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I’m delighted to have been appointed as a High Streets Task Force Expert and being part of this national effort and supporting local authorities and communities to transform their high streets. 

The High Streets Task Force announces today their appointment of recognised experts to support local authorities, helping to solve complex, interdisciplinary issues, and bringing expertise to entrenched problems and new challenges.

High Streets Task Force Experts advise on a range of issues, including planning, urban design, placemaking, landscape architecture, resilience, transport, valuation, asset management, investment, governance, data and analytics, place management and leadership. Once assigned, Experts also to help to prescribe Task Force support that best meets the needs of the places that they visit and advise, helping to tackle a range of issues that could be blocking the potential of the local high streets.

The High Streets Task Force has recruited to the Experts register through four professional bodies, including the Royal Town Planning Institute, which represent specialist expertise and knowledge, working for and alongside those that manage high streets.

Experts are experienced and respected professionals, at Member or Fellow level of their respective professional body. We will: 

  • Visit specific high streets and town centres to work with place leaders and the community to identify the important key issue(s) that are hampering successful transformation, and how to address these.
  • Consult with local authorities and place stakeholders to help solve complex challenges, which may also include running vision workshops and brokering relationships within the local community.

    Read more >


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