Town centres where shops and offices fall vacant should be used to establish new “health hubs” combining GP surgeries, health and social care services and gyms, a think-tank says today.
The Social Market Foundation says that the closure of high street stores and changes to office occupation should prompt a rethink about better ways to deliver public services including healthcare in town centres.
Planning policy should encourage the building of “lifetime” housing in urban centres, where residents can live comfortably into old age, the SMF said. Councils could also be given powers to raise dedicated taxes to fund parks and green spaces.
The SMF, a cross-party Westminster think-tank, made the recommendations in a briefing paper on the future of the high street after the COVID-19 pandemic, which it says will significantly change life in urban centres.
“Without significant change, we face the prospect of urban degeneration across the country, with a high proportion of vacant commercial real estate and reduced footfall in town and city centres,” the SMF said.
To help maintain economic and social activity in urban centres, the SMF said policymakers should use the power of the public sector to establish new service “hubs” on high streets. Health services should be a focus for such new sites.
The SMF cited examples where local authorities and healthcare bodies are already developing such hubs, which it suggested could be a model for other areas in future:
- City of Wolverhampton Council, the Royal Wolverhampton NHS Trust and Wolverhampton Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) have developed a hub which brings together over 60 health and social care professionals under one roof, at Wolverhampton Science Park.
- A health and social care hub in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, has also proved successful with health, social care, housing and voluntary and community organisations working side-by-side. In the Hub, a team of social care and health professionals sit together with coordinators in one office and triage referrals to the right place or person.
Scott Corfe, SMF Research Director, said:
“The aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic looks set to change our high streets permanently. To remain relevant, our town and city centres will need to be reimagined – and we think that health should be a key aspect of this repurposing of the high street”
“Bringing more parks, GP surgeries, gyms and ‘health hubs’ to the high street could prevent the rise of ghost towns and improve the physical and mental wellbeing of the population”
Corfe also suggested that urban centres could become places where people live and retire, as empty commercial space is converted into specialist housing and care homes.
Some existing developments are already seeking to promote more intergenerational housing. One example is Ebbsfleet in Kent, which is part of the NHS Healthy New Towns programme.
Ebbsfleet Garden City will be a new town of 33,000 new residents. As many as 15,000 of its housing units will be ‘lifetime homes’ in safe and attractive neighbourhoods where residents can choose to live independently at home throughout their life.
The SMF paper also recommends:
- A “Health in All Policies” approach should be adopted with respect to spatial planning, with a new Parliamentary Bill setting out principles for healthy homes and healthy urban design.
- The “town centre first” planning policy needs to be updated. Where appropriate sites are available, public bodies should locate health and other public services in town and city centres first.
- Government needs to provide a clearer framework for how Infrastructure Levy funding can and should be used to support health-enhancing infrastructure, such as through the provision of new green spaces.
- Local authorities should be granted new revenue-raising powers to support ongoing costs associated with parks and other health-enhancing infrastructure. This could include through the creation of US-style Park Districts, where additional property taxes can support park and trail maintenance.
- Within local authority planning teams, increased attention must be paid to the “curation” of town and city centres, ensuring that urban areas offer a cultural and service mix that maintains their relevance in an age of online shopping and remote working. In practice, this means ensuring planning teams have sufficient capacity and access to talent, both in-house and through partnerships with the private sector.
The SMF report was supported by DAC Beachcroft. The SMF retained editorial independence.
Christopher Stanwell, Head of Planning at DAC Beachcroft, said:
“The suggestions put forward give a purposeful meaning to the variety of on-going discussions about the re-creation of our town and city centres. Zero carbon is integral to the Government’s COVID recovery plans but the considerations in “Health on the High Street” go beyond cleaner, to greener and wider inclusion.
“Green, clean and more inclusive add to the filter for decision making and give strategic plans a greater sense of direction. Pre-COVID many of our urban centres had become much more attractive for young adults. Post-COVID inclusion is likely to mean more housing for a greater range of ages; a return to centres that provide something for all.”
- The report, entitled Health on the high street, is published at 7am on Tuesday 19 January at smf.co.uk/publications/health-on-the-high-street
- This research has been sponsored by DAC Beachcroft. The SMF retains full editorial independence of this and of its publications. The SMF is a registered charity committed to financial transparency, declaring all its sources of funding.
- For media inquiries, please contact Linus Pardoe, SMF Impact Officer – email@example.com | 07402 576995