With considerable media fanfare the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) announced last Saturday that a £95m regeneration fund is being released to “revitalise” historic high streets in 69 towns and cities across England. One of those 69 is Hastings.

PICTURE: Dave Young

The stated purpose of this largesse, described by DCMS as the “biggest ever single investment by Government in the UK’s built heritage” is to “transform disused buildings into shops, houses and community centres” and to “help traditional businesses adapt to better compete with online outlets”. Each favoured town or city will have a Heritage Action Zone, overseen by Historic England (the re-brand of English Heritage). 

Of the £95m being made available, £3m will be provided by the National Lottery Heritage Fund “to support a cultural programme to engage people in the life and history of their high streets”. The rest comes as two slices of the investment cake of £3.6bn announced in July by incoming Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the form of a “Towns Fund”.  One slice of £52m is from a “Future High Streets Fund” administered by the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG); the other of £40m via the DCMS.

Communities Secretary of State Robert Jenrick led the upbeat rhetoric in Saturday’s press release:

 “I want to make sure the nation’s high streets continue to be at the heart of local communities. Today’s funding will revitalise much-loved historic buildings, helping to reverse the decline of our town centres. Ensuring that prosperity and opportunities are available to everyone in this country, not just those in our biggest cities, is a priority of this Government in our mission to ‘level up’ the regions.”

Culture Secretary Nicky Morgan proclaimed that the  funding will be used for a variety of projects, including to:

• Complete essential repair works in historic buildings and reveal hidden and forgotten features of buildings by restoring shop-fronts and facades; 

• Stimulate commercial investment in high streets by demonstrating how historic sites can be successfully repurposed;

• Develop education projects and bespoke events to help reposition historic buildings as community hubs at the heart of local towns and villages;

• Help address the UK wide skills shortage of heritage professionals in expert fields like stonemasonry and conservation by providing local property owners, residents and businesses with the opportunity to train in these areas.

PICTURE: Dave Young

Historic England’s Chief Executive, Duncan Wilson, was also in on the launch, declaring:

“Our high streets are the beating hearts of our communities. Many have roots that go back hundreds of years. Their historic buildings and distinctive character tell the story of how our towns and cities have changed over time. They are places where people come together to socialise, shop, run businesses and be part of their local community, but now they face an uncertain future.

“Through physical improvements and cultural activities, we will work with partners to find new ways to regenerate our high streets. It is a challenge, but with our experience and track record, as well as the knowledge and passion of local councils, businesses and community groups our historic high streets can be thriving social hubs once more.”

None of these luminaries commented on the much larger allocation of £1bn made by the MHCLG from its Future High Streets Fund in recent months to a different list of 100 English towns and cities from which Hastings has been excluded, despite the Borough Council making a bid for “up to £25m” provision from it to redevelop the town centre. 

PICTURE: Dave Young

Alert readers of HIP (Issue 126) may recall our report that council leader Peter Chowney, while supporting this bid and saying he hoped it would be successful, queried the short term and competitive nature of the bidding system at that point. “It’s a process which forces the poorest and most deprived areas to compete for scraps from the rich man’s table”, he told the Hastings & St Leonards Local Strategic Partnership meeting on 29th April.

The latest provision, however much it is talked up by government, hardly challenges this assessment. Division of £95m by 69 gives average funding of less than £1.38m per town centre. How much “transformation” of old buildings and traditional businesses is going to be achieved with that?

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