Digital placemaking – harnessing technology & data to revitalise our towns

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How do you realise the potential of digital as part of mainstream placemaking and place strategies? There’s six key lessons we’ve learnt through preparing Digital Place Plans that harness technology and data to regenerate urban spaces, revitalising high streets and boost local tourism

At Owen Davies Consulting, we’ve been thinking about the future of places for almost 30 years and in that time have helped places big and small to understand the opportunities for increasing their social, economic, cultural and environmental prosperity. But it has only been in the last few years – and especially through our involvement in the Welsh Governments Year of Smart Towns programme and including supporting 15 towns across Wales to pilot a new approach to digital placemaking – that we have fully realised the potential of digital within mainstream placemaking and place strategies of towns. 

We’ve already supported 15 towns across Wales to pilot a new approach to digital placemaking, but we’re still learning, of course, but here are six things we’ve learned so far: 

1 – Digital is everywhere, so places of all sizes need to embrace it rather than hide from it. 

All aspects of local, regional and national policy now have a digital dimension deeply embedded within them, so if you want to stay aligned with or influence it – and of course access related public funding such as Transforming Towns here in Wales – you need to embrace it. 

2 – Although some of the jargon involved can be baffling, the principles of digital placemaking are straightforward. 

With mysterious terms like ‘smart cities’, ‘LoRaWAN’ and the ‘Internet of Things’ widespread in the digital dialect, it’s perhaps no surprise that place leaders are often unclear about how to harness technology and data to regenerate urban spaces, revitalise high streets and boost local tourism. For us, digital placemaking is straightforward: it’s about bringing together the practice of placemaking with the exploitation of technology and data. Or put even more simply, it’s about including consideration of how using technology and data can help make better places. 

3 – Digital placemaking is just as important for smaller places as for bigger ones. 

The concept of ‘Smart Cities’ has been around for a long time now, but programmes like the Year of Smart Towns have demonstrated that there’s no reason why smaller (but no less important) places can’t reap the benefits of becoming smarter too. No town should be left behind! 

4 -Digital placemaking is a journey, and you’ve got to start that journey somewhere. 

When we work with towns to produce a Digital Place Plan or properly consider digital within a Placemaking Plan, we encourage them to do things thoroughly by following a five-step process to produce the Plan, and then when looking at delivery, to focus first on delivering a few simple wins. As with many things, it’s better to start small, learn lessons and then grow, rather than try and do too much, too quickly, and get overwhelmed.  

5 – Digital placemaking isn’t easy and there are plenty of barriers to overcome. 

Needing to understand the dynamics of local decision making, overcome apathy, and demystify key concepts… sound familiar? The barriers to digital placemaking are similar to those faced when taking a more traditional placemaking approach. Fortunately, we’ve learned plenty of lessons from our pilot work and now have a toolbox of techniques to help stakeholders achieve the best outcomes. 

6 -Get it right and you can have a big impact. 

By using data, people can make better decisions for their town and local area. With transparency on actions, activities, and trends, they can recognise opportunities and act on them faster. Just for starters, this can mean giving people the confidence to launch new businesses, helping existing businesses grow, and attracting and evidencing the success of public events. 

All the above means that digital placemaking is a key strategic opportunity for practitioners in the heritage, regeneration and urban development sectors, including developers, place managers, planners, architects, designers, heritage trusts, and local governments. 

If you are interested in learning more about our work in digital placemaking, we recently delivered an online masterclass as part of Welsh Government’s Smart Towns Cymru initiative. If you missed it, you can now watch it on YouTube:  

We also have a short film explaining all about our Digital Place Plans you can watch here: 

Digital Placemaking Team  +



New planning powers in Wales curb second homes and crackdown on Airbnb’s

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Few things in planning are truly “radical”, but after decades of campaigning new planning powers in Wales are set to curb the contentious issue of second homes and crackdown on holiday lets with the introduction of three new use classes.

In Wales and other coastal communities from Cornwall to Cumbria, the impact on local communities of the growing second home market and the loss of private rental property to Airbnb style holiday lets has become a hot political issue. Rising house prices are pricing local people out and the shortage of affordable rental properties is turning communities into ghost villages out of the holiday season. And in Wales, there’s the acute issue of the decline of Welsh speaking communities.

We have observed these impacts during one of our recent studies preparing an action plan to manage the impact of tourism on the idyllic Welsh speaking coastal community of Llansteffan in Carmarthenshire. It’s estimated in the village with about 500 people, 25% of properties are second homes, just 11 homes have families with children of school age and only 9 properties are on the social housing register. The lack of affordable housing for local people and families because of a growth in second homes, holiday lets, and rising house prices has been raised as a major issue. Young people, therefore, families with children are moving out of the village. During our study we met with a group of young adults, each one had grown up in the village, and all were employed but had been forced to move away or were ‘stuck’ living with a parent in the village. This raised concerns about the longer-term impacts on sustaining the community and social infrastructure including the school. For some, they believed it was too late and will never be able to return to live in their home village.

The new power in Wales will give local planning authorities the ability, where they have evidence, to make local amendments to the planning system through an Article 4 Direction, allowing them to consider whether planning permission is required to change from different types of dwellinghouses to another and to control the number of additional second homes and short-term lets in an area. The Use Classes Order is being amended to create new use classes for ‘dwellinghouses, used as sole or main residences’ (class C3), ‘dwellinghouses, used otherwise than as sole or main residences’ (class C5) and ‘short-term lets’ (class C6).

In addition, the General Permitted Development Order (GDPO) is being amended to allow permitted changes between the new use classes, C3, C5 and C6. These permitted development rights can be dis-applied within a specific area by an Article 4 Direction made by a local planning authority based on robust local evidence. These new powers will come into force on 20th October 2022.

These changes come hot on the heels of legislation allowing local authorities in Wales to impose a 300% council tax hike on second homes and plans to levy a higher Land Transaction Tax on purchases.

Likely, similar coastal and rural areas of the UK with parallel issues will look on Wales with interest and maybe envy. Earlier this year the UK Government declared “war” on second-home owners said the press when a review into Airbnb and holiday homes in tourist towns was launched as part of the “levelling-up” programme.

Owen Davies

This is Wrexham – Gateway

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There’s a vision for Wrexham Gateway to create a new landmark mixed-use leisure, employment and residential scheme around a modern strategic transportation hub and football stadium. With global media attention focused on Wrexham FC’s new owners Rob McElhenney and Ryan Reynolds, the Gateway Masterplan also reflect the cities new found confidence and investment potential as one of the UK’s newest cities.

The regeneration area encompasses a significant gateway to the city centre covering Wrexham FC’s Racecourse Football Ground, areas of Wrexham Glyndwr University (WGU) Campus, Wrexham General Station and adjoining parcels of land. Wrexham County Borough Council in conjunction with Welsh Government, the University and Transport for Wales have established a Partnership to deliver the Wrexham Gateway – a strategic project capturing the benefits of the recently awarded city status and ambition to become a national and regional place of significance to live, work, visit and invest.

The Partnership has previously commissioned two masterplan studies of the area along with site acquisitions and several focussed studies to support the project. However, as knowledge about the complex range of proposed developments and site constraints have materialised it has become apparent that a unifying masterplan is required updating the previous studies. Proposed developments include a new Kop Stand for the Racecourse integrating a conference centre and adjoining hotel providing a new landmark feature. New office accommodation adjacent to the train station would serve high profile occupiers already lining up for modern floorspace in the city.

The appointed team for the masterplan refresh is led by AFL Architects with support from Element Urbanism and Owen Davies Consulting. All three practices are currently working in Wrexham on adjoining and complementary schemes including AFL’s support for Wrexham FC’s ground improvements and ODC’s studies to support Wrexham’s successful bid for City Status and ongoing preparation of the City Centre Placemaking Strategy.

It’s YES to City Status for Wrexham !

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Eight new cities are being created for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, with at least one in every UK nation including Wrexham in Wales.

We worked with Wrexham to prepare the application for city status last year. Applicants had to show their cultural heritage and royal links. The Platinum Jubilee civic honours competition also required places to show how their local identity and communities meant they deserved to be granted city status.

Wrexham can expect a range of potential benefits from city status and the opportunity exists for it to strengthen ambitious place shaping plans and investment strategies with wider economic and regeneration benefits being created for the new city

The idea of becoming a city was sometimes controversial – find out about our role in Wrexham’s successful city status application here

Yes or No to City Status?

Velo Park promises to be of “national importance” for the growth of cycling & wheeled sports

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PLANS to build a velo park in Monmouthshire which promises to be of “national importance” for the growth of cycling and wheeled sport have been approved by councillors.

Owen Davies Consulting has led the feasibility, design, planning and project management on behalf of Monmouthshire CC and Welsh Cycling. The development of this unique sporting, leisure and education facility will include a closed road circuit with facilities for road, cyclocross and entry-level mountain biking.

In 2020 the council was awarded a grant from the Welsh Government, via Sport Wales, to develop a project. Facilities will be suitable for leisure, coaching, training and competitive cycling, and for all forms of wheeled sports.

The closed road circuit will be six metres wide and one kilometre in length, on a unique undulating course with street lighting covering part of the circuit to allow for its use during the evening.

The project has been complex to develop, because of the site’s topography, biodiversity and ecology, with a number of protected species identified on or immediately adjacent to the site.

At a planning committee meeting on Tuesday, Councillors backed the application. The following day the Council’s Cabinet backed the scheme with over £490k to fund the construction of the first phase of the multi-million pound Abergavenny velo park.

We blogged about the velo park design in 2020

The Abergavenny velo park project has been a ‘sweetspot’  project for our team where we were able to combine Owen’s lifetime experience of racing cycling and experience as a British Cycling qualified coach with our professional masterplanning and development skills to plan, design and enable this nationally significant scheme.


Repurposing Debenhams in Carmarthen Town Centre

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The former Debenhams department store in Carmarthen town centre is to be repurposed as a new Hwb, which will bring together a range of health, wellbeing, learning and cultural services. This prominent building was identified as the preferred location through the preparation of the Carmarthen Town Centre Recovery Plan recently prepared by Owen Davies Consulting.

Carmarthenshire County Council, working with Hywel Dda University Health Board and University of Wales Trinity Saint David, are progressing at pace with plans to deliver the project after securing more than £15m from the UK Government’s Levelling Up fund.

The development, which is earmarked for more than £3.5m of match funding from Carmarthenshire County Council’s capital programme, aims to support people of all ages to access key services all under one roof.

Carmarthenshire County Council is progressing well with talks to secure the building and with funding and key partners all on board, hopes to begin transforming the space by the end of this year with completion expected in the spring of 2024.

Cllr Emlyn Dole, leader of the council and cabinet member for regeneration, said: “This is an exciting opportunity to transform the high street and benefit the people and businesses of Carmarthenshire. It fits perfectly with our aspirations to repurpose Carmarthen town centre – a need highlighted in the Carmarthen town centre recovery plan which we have recently endorsed.”

The re-development of the former department store will bring almost 65,000 sq ft of prime commercial space back into use.

Lee Davies, director of strategic development and operational planning for Hywel Dda University Health Board, said: “The project will help to promote preventative healthcare and creatively link this with arts, learning, community, health, sports and leisure services,” while Professor Medwin Hughes, vice-chancellor of the University of Wales Trinity Saint David, added the Hwb provided a “unique opportunity to collaborate with partners to revitalise our town centres by offering a mix of leisure, cultural and education opportunities to benefit residents and businesses.”

The Hwb project is being brought forward alongside a similar Hwb project at South Quay, in Pembroke town centre, which formed part of the bid to the Levelling Up Fund.

Regional Economic Frameworks for Wales

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The Minister for Economy has published a shared vision for the Welsh regional economies, establishing a common suite of economic development priorities which all partners can work towards and be a vehicle for continued collaboration across the public, private and voluntary sectors.

We worked closely with the Welsh Government team and their local authority partners in the regions to co-produce the Regional Economic Framework documents over many months and engaged extensively with stakeholders, taking a new approach to participation with the support of the Co-production Network for Wales.

We specifically supported the drafting of the Mid and South West Wales REFs aligned with the work underpinning the Mid Wales Growth Deal and the Regional Economic Delivery Plan for the south west led by the Local Authorities

Link here to the REF documents –  Written Statement: Regional Economic Frameworks – Publication (22 December 2021) | GOV.WALES

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.

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