Experts hit high streets in bid to revitalise flagging Black Country town centres
A task force set up to help revive struggling town centres across the region has undertaken a fact-finding tour around the streets of the Black Country.
The elite group of big hitters, which includes designers, bank bosses and project managers, strolled around the town centres of Bilston, West Bromwich, Walsall and Dudley in an effort to find out "what makes them tick".
The areas will each receive £4 million from the West Midlands Combined Authority to be spent on kickstarting a renaissance in parts of the region dogged by declining trade.
And key to the plans will be moves to bring empty shop units back into use, with bosses looking at ways to attract new retailers, as well as alternative uses such as homes and business start-ups.
The group was set up by West Midlands Mayor and former John Lewis boss Andy Street, and has vowed to use "radical thinking and bold new ideas" to address declining centres.
In whistle-stop tour of the Black Country, members were taken around Bilston by Simon Lucas, a regeneration boss at Wolverhampton Council.
He led them on a tour from the Greyhound and Punchbowl pub, through the town centre to the Town Hall.
Chair of the task force, Jon Bramwell, a managing director at HSBC UK Commercial Banking, said it was his first time in the town, and that the tour was "essential" in helping them plan future developments.
“It’s about getting under the skin of these places and finding out what really makes them tick," he said. "It brings to life the issues that we see on the printed page, and leaves us better placed to help determine what action is needed to inject new energy into these towns and bring them alive."
The task force's aim is to work alongside local councils, offering guidance on how to best invest funds that can help rejuvenate flagging areas.
Talking about his afternoon in Bilston, Mr Bramwell said the town felt "pretty vibrant", adding that like all centres it needed to have a successful "commercial retail offer" in order to thrive.
"The question is whether the buildings that are there are being used to their optimum effect," he said, widening the discussion to the other towns he had visited.
"We need a collective decision – involving engagement with the community – to work out what the best use of those buildings is.
"Nobody wants to see boarded up buildings vacant and not being used. They must be used for a purpose. That is a focus for this group, to make sure they are used to good effect."
He added: “Each of the town centres is unique and the regeneration plans being drawn up by their councils will need to be tailored to their individual needs."
Other areas to receive funding are St Thomas Quarter in Dudley, St Matthews Quarter in Walsall and West Bromwich, as well as Bordesley Green in Birmingham.
The task force is due to run the rule over initial proposals put forward by local councils in the near future, prior to making recommendations.
The scheme is separate from the Government's £675m Future High Streets fund, which has seen dozens of town centres including Stafford, Walsall and Wolverhampton receive cash.