Solihull’s place leadership in a global crisis

Like many local authorities across the country, one of the challenges facing Solihull Metropolitan Borough Council as part of its COVID-19 recovery planning, was adapting and advancing its existing commitment to developing its towns and local centres.


Shops in Shirley town centre

Case study synopsis: 

Like many local authorities across the country, one of the challenges facing Solihull Metropolitan Borough Council as part of its COVID-19 recovery planning, was adapting and advancing its existing commitment to developing its towns and local centres. The place leadership solution has been to create the Borough’s own version of the IPM’s national recovery framework covering the ‘how’ and the ‘what’ of town centre revitalisation. In Shirley, for example, this involved working with a newly formed marketing group to promote the safe and welcoming reopening whilst engaging businesses and other stakeholders in revising the town’s long-term economic growth plan.

The challenge: 

The challenge facing Solihull Metropolitan Borough Council was how to adapt and advance its existing commitment to revitalising its towns and local centres.

Turn back the clock to January 2020 and guided by an LGA peer challenge review, Solihull Council was beginning work to ‘reset’ its Council Plan with a clear commitment to ‘leadership of place’. The LGA review had recognised the need for the Borough Council to build on its very successful positioning of Solihull as integral to the economic vitality of the West Midlands through its UK Central Hub growth and infrastructure plan designed to maximise opportunities related to proposed HS2 rail interchange within the Borough. At the same time, it was recognised that the authority had ensured Solihull’s individual identity remained strong.

As part of Solihull Council’s regional engagement married with its commitment to supporting the development of its local town centres, work was underway at this time to develop a new economic growth plan for Shirley town centre. The planning work was being undertaken with matched funding secured from the Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership (GBSLEP) as part of its regional towns and local centres (TLC) framework, alongside supporting activities including public realm improvements, business engagement, marketing and events.

Elsewhere in the Borough, the Council was turning its thinking to refreshing the Solihull town centre masterplan to complement its partnership work with the Solihull BID; and the next stage in the redevelopment of Chelmsley Wood town centre was being considered.

Then, as a result of the pandemic, in mid-March, across Solihull Borough and the rest of the United Kingdom, town centres closed down overnight and the Council was left considering how to progress its long-term plans whilst preparing in the short-term the reopening and immediate recovery of its communities.

The solution:

The place leadership response to the COVID-19 pandemic in Solihull has been to work with its existing local partnerships to respond to the immediate issues whilst continuing to plan for the long-term development of its towns and local centres.

Solihull Metropolitan Borough Council created its own version of the Institute of Place Management’s (IPM) national post-COVID 19 recovery framework, setting out immediate steps to move from pre-recovery to recovery. This covered the ‘how’ and the ‘what’ of reopening town centres in a safe and welcoming way. This was achieved using funding through the Government’s reopening high streets safely fund, with a clear understanding of its eligibility requirements.

Agreed, short-term actions to aid town centre recovery across Solihull Borough included:

  • ensuring safe access to streets and spaces through one-way systems and signage;
  • branding and communications campaigns aimed at local businesses and customers;
  • administering grants and signposting to business support;
  • creating cross-council ‘task teams’ and coordinating local stakeholder groups;
  • embedding monitoring & evaluation of stakeholder perceptions and impacts through recruiting for new posts (we have two through the Reopening safely fund – one in post, another currently being recruited) 

In Solihull town centre the Council worked the Solihull BID to support a ‘we want you back’ town centre campaign and provided thousands of hand sanitiser bottles and disposable face masks to shoppers.

Importantly, the data and learning from this recovery support has been used to adapt and advance Borough-wide and local long-term project development and planning. In Shirley, for example, the Council worked with the town’s newly formed Marketing Group to promote the reopening of the town centre by developing and piloting proposals for new branding; digital promotion and signage to support visitors back to the centre. At the same time, new engagement has been undertaken with 121 businesses to understand their changing perceptions, performance and priorities post-lockdown to inform the new Shirley town centre economic plan. 

Such local placemaking helped inform the ‘reset’ Council Plan for 2020-2025 and the Borough-wide COVID-19 economic recovery plan which both place a strong emphasis on working with local stakeholders in supporting and developing towns and local centres.

Solihull Council has actively participated in regional town centre support provided by GBSLEP and augmented in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Businesses have taken part in digital skills webinars, recovery planning workshops and one-to-one support whilst Solihull Council and Solihull BID have been actively involved in the LEP’s virtual network sharing information, ideas and best practice on town centre recovery and transformation. Solihull is also amongst the town’s featured in the LEP’s innovative growing our towns report that provides analysis of the changing function of individual towns and the ‘ecosystem’ between them.

The economic plan for Shirley will also compliment proposals for the A34 corridor as part of a strategic project supported by the West Midlands Combined Authority to look at traffic modelling options to improve connectivity and ease congestion.

The impact:

The engagement work with local businesses through the response to COVID 19 and the development of the refreshed Shirley economic plan has led to a strong foundation for taking identified actions forward. This includes identifying local business ‘champions’ for supporting place making activities and identifying joint activities and priorities that can be taken forward in the short and medium term that support both economic recovery and developing the town centre for future growth.

The survey work has identified that Shirley has many assets and a strong economic position to build upon and through greater collaboration between businesses and community stakeholders Shirley can maximise opportunities for growth.

How is the new approach being sustained?:

As Solihull Borough and its communities navigate the uncertainties of the recovery phase of post-COVID 19 lockdown, ongoing monitoring, stakeholder engagement and partnership working will continue to shape its immediate responses and long-term planning for, what the IPM’s national frameworks calls, the transformation phase. The new Borough-wide Council Plan backs this process through a commitment to understanding the future role of town and local centres and working with stakeholders to establish a shared vision for each locality. 

In Shirley, the increased stakeholder engagement and monitoring of the changing retail economy post-lockdown, has translated into a strengthening across town centre economic plan objectives that include: 

  • supporting a buoyant, mixed day and night time, cultural and leisure economy;
  • maximising the town’s strong ‘civic pride’ in ways that makes it distinctive
  • considering the future use of public realm, increasing attractiveness of the area, accessibility and maximising opportunities such as events space;
  • working with businesses and community organisations to deliver a unified plan for place marketing and promotional activities;
  • exploring the use of digital technologies to increase footfall

Solihull Council has been allocated £192,000 funding from the England European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) as part of Reopening High Streets Safely Fund. The Department for Communities and Local Government is the Managing Authority for ERDF. Established by the European Union ERDF funds help local areas stimulate their economic development by investing in projects which will support innovation, businesses, create jobs and local community regenerations. For more information visit https://www.gov.uk/european-growth-funding

The place leadership response in Solihull, like other areas that have responded effectively, has not been about seeking to wind back the clock, though neither has it been about letting it stop. A focused and immediate response to the impacts of lockdown has been needed. This response, though, has been achieved in ways that strengthens the commitment to partnership working and adapts to changing circumstances in ways that advance long-term plans.

Lessons learned:

The LGA peer review of Solihull Council, recognised the importance of the authority capitalising upon its rich information and analytical capacity. It proposed this should be achieved by using it to inform a switch to a much greater focus on outcomes, tangible deliverables and the practical steps necessary to demonstrate progress. Part of the learning from the Council’s place leadership response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been to help embed such an approach in its long-term planning for town centre development.

Contact:

  • Clare Rudge, Business Investment Officer, Economy & Infrastructure Directorate, Solihull Metropolitan Borough Council.
  • Telephone: 0121 704 6167
  • Email: [email protected]

Links to relevant documents:

Updates on the publication of the new Shirley economic growth plan are available through the success stories page of the People & Places Partnership’s web site.

Guidance on forward planning through strategy and plans to inform town and city centre revitalisation is available as part of the LGA’s revitalising town centres toolkit