How we did it: Masterplanning a town centre revival

A 12-year vision to help a Merseyside town centre overcome years of decline had to look beyond retail, says John Geoghegan.

Masterplan team: (left-to-right) Sue Callister, regeneration programme manager at Knowsley Metropolitan Borough Council; and Bernard Greep, partner at Peter Brett Associates
Masterplan team: (left-to-right) Sue Callister, regeneration programme manager at Knowsley Metropolitan Borough Council; and Bernard Greep, partner at Peter Brett Associates

PROJECT: Prescot town centre, Merseyside

ORGANISATIONS INVOLVED: Knowsley Metropolitan Borough Council, Peter Brett Associates, Environmental Associates

Recent years have not been kind to many of Britain’s town centres, and Prescot is no exception. The Merseyside town’s key shopping area suffers high vacancy, declining footfall and a lack of private sector investment. To compound that, Prescot is also in one of England’s most deprived local authority areas.

With this in mind, Knowsley Metropolitan Borough Council appointed consultancy Peter Brett Associates (PBA) to develop a town centre masterplan to address these challenges. Working with design and masterplanning consultancy Environmental Associates, PBA produced a plan that sets out a 12-year vision to guide future planning, development and investment decisions.

Bernard Greep, a partner at PBA, says Prescot faces two key problems around retail competition. Firstly, its close proximity to Liverpool, which he says has a "very strong city centre". Secondly, the Cables Retail Park is just a quarter of a mile from the town centre. "The gravity has shifted from the town centre to the retail park," he notes. "And connections between the retail park and town centre aren’t the best."

In approaching the project, Greep says PBA felt it was essential to initially consider the town centre’s economic viability to gain an understanding of what could be achieved. "So we did a baseline study looking at what’s working well and what’s not. It’s important that any proposals we take forward are deliverable. There’s no point doing a design-led masterplan that ends up as a series of nice pictures but is left on the shelf and not implemented."

Following the study, which identified the town as having a "limited" retail offer with "very weak" demand for new shops, PBA concluded that a retail-led masterplan was not likely to be viable. "We needed to find a new role for the town centre," says Greep. "If we focused on retail, that wasn’t going to work."

Consequently, says Greep, the masterplan proposes a new vision focused on leisure- and culture-led development. The plan identifies "significant opportunities for future leisure development to facilitate the regeneration of the town centre", including tapping into Prescot’s "significant and important heritage assets". Prescot was once home to an Elizabethan theatre where some academics believe that some of Shakespeare’s earliest plays were performed. The potential benefits of this vision, says Greep, are more visitors, improved perceptions of the town centre and a diversified evening economy.

Key to boosting the town’s cultural offer is the creation of a 350-seat theatre and education centre called Shakespeare North, which aims to use the town’s Elizabethan theatrical heritage.

Greep describes the planned theatre as "a really unique selling point for Prescot" and a "lynchpin" of the masterplan, adding: "On the back of that, footfall will increase and attract complementary uses like food and drink and the cinema." The theatre already has the £11 million of funding needed in place, he says, including £5 million from central government. Full planning permission for a revised version of the scheme was secured last night after an earlier design was approved in April.

The masterplan also proposes a new cinema, a hotel and new housing developments to help increase town centre footfall. Improved pedestrian and vehicular connectivity around the town centre and to other areas is another primary objective, alongside public realm improvements.

However, getting everyone on board with the new vision for the town centre presented a challenge, says Greep. "Immediately, people were saying: ‘Why can’t we get the shops we had 30 years ago?’ We tried to explain why that isn’t realistic, through the engagement exercise."

The engagement process during the plan’s preparation was extensive, says Sue Callister, the council’s regeneration programme manager. Organised by both the council and PBA, it "went over and beyond anything we’ve done before", she says. It included drop-in sessions in the town centre plus workshops aimed at local business. Residents and businesses were given an opportunity to review the plan and provide feedback, says Callister.

The masterplan was adopted by the council in July 2016 as a supplementary planning document but is being treated as a "live programme", says Callister. Since its adoption, the council has set up a programme team to drive forward the proposals, she adds. Work on the Shakespeare North theatre is due to start next spring, while the council is developing a business case for the new cinema.

In addition, the masterplan has helped the council produce evidence to progress bids for town centre regeneration funding, she says. This includes an £8 million bid for Liverpool City Region Combined Authority money to pay for improved connections to the local train station.

The document also impressed at this year’s Planning Awards, where it won in the masterplanning category. The judges said the masterplan was an "ambitious and significant project that encapsulates a strong sense of place", adding: "Its early implementation bodes well."

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