Opinion: how housing associations can help transform town centres

This week, RBH Chief Executive Gareth Swarbrick wrote for Inside Housing about how housing associations can help to transform town centres. The text of his article is republished below.

Town centres are changing across the UK, but this is creating opportunities for new residential markets and housing associations have a key role to play.

Each week we hear new stories reflecting huge shifts in the retail sector with some of our largest and most well-known retail chains struggling or closing. However, town centres also offer a range of high-quality assets, transport networks, heritage and leisure facilities. This infrastructure can pave the way for investment in high-quality housing and facilities that can better meet the needs of local communities and help to breathe new life into town centres.

Housing associations are well placed to support investment in town centres and drive a joined-up approach. By working with partners, we can support local people and create great places, ensuring genuinely affordable homes are part of the mix, that wider investment can be triggered, and quality benchmarks are set for early development schemes.

Rochdale town centre has all the ingredients to help deliver major change using this approach. Birthplace of co-operation with amazing built heritage, it was hit hard by industrial and economic restructuring in recent decades, but has the potential for a much brighter future.

That’s why RBH is working in partnership with our local residents, the council, health, transport and heritage partners to give purpose back to the town centre, inject new vibrancy and protect its history. At the same time, we’re exploring ways in which we can improve people’s lives through good work and training opportunities.

Offering better quality homes to existing town centre residents and attracting new people to Rochdale town centre living is a vital part of this. The current residential offer in Rochdale town centre is very limited; a 1960s rented flat or a small 1900s rented terrace. Anyone looking for a garden or a larger family house or a route into home ownership will struggle here at the moment.

To help improve this, we’ve committed £25 million for redevelopment, investment in existing homes and building new homes to help drive up quality and choice. This investment will also improve street layouts and walking and cycling connectivity as well as the public realm to help enhance overall quality of life in the town centre.

This is the first step towards creating a new market that works for the whole community with new housing for people of all ages, including specialist homes for older people. Critically, this is a catalyst for private sector investment in Rochdale town centre which could unlock capacity for over 2,000 new homes.

This approach isn’t without its challenges. One of these is public funding and how it is allocated. Currently the focus is on supporting existing high-pressure residential markets where demand is high rather than opportunities for changing places. Metrics that project forward, based on previous market activity, will never reflect the fantastic potential that Rochdale and similar towns offer.

However, the prize for unlocking potential in town centres like Rochdale is massive and housing associations could hold a key. By joining forces with local partners with a shared vision, there is the opportunity to create new markets that better meet the needs of local communities and ensure town centres have a vibrant future as well as their proud history.