Glass Works in Barnsley offers hope to all high streets – Kathy McArdle

AS the final touches are applied to The Glass Works, our £210m regeneration scheme that has already transformed 
the heart of Barnsley, I truly believe 
many other towns and cities could look to our borough for inspiration and guidance.

The Glass Works is Barnsley's trailblazing regeneration scheme,

Barnsley is ahead of the curve as high streets continue to adapt to the new market conditions caused by the pandemic and a seismic change in shopping habits. When construction began on The Glass Works five years ago, high streets were still pretty active, and retail was still seen as a core footfall driver.

That’s not to say that there weren’t signs there. It was universally accepted that the introduction of the internet and online shopping was rapidly changing the way we made purchases – particularly with the more mundane everyday items. But the pandemic was unforeseen and unfathomable. It has accelerated the changes in retail habits even further – with some experts saying by potentially a decade.

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When we started planning The Glass Works 10 years ago, we were determined to not only regenerate the town centre but to design a scheme that stands the test of time and is future-proofed against whatever the market conditions and social change will throw at us in the future.

The Glass Works is Barnsley's trailblazing regeneration scheme,

Naturally, retail (and omni-channel retail) is still seen as a major part of The Glass Works and our town centre in general, but we took the decision to primarily focus on people and place – reducing the focus on retail as the sole purpose and footfall driver of an urban centre, which in hindsight looks like a very wise decision.

We have created key community anchors that will act as the cornerstones of our town centre for decades to come. These include the refurbished Barnsley Markets and Market Kitchen – Barnsley has a long tradition of being a market town since 1249 and our market is the envy of many towns, with 100-plus traders and a programme of food and drink events taking place regularly as well as cultural events such as the Exhibition of the National Gallery’s Van Huysum painting and its very own cookbook The Barnsley Larder.

Other vibrant community anchors include our welcoming Library @ The Lightbox with a maker space, events space and terrace overlooking the hills, and key leisure brands Superbowl UK and Cineworld.

We will also have cultural experiences at the heart of the centre, with [email protected], an engaging interactive museum space dedicated to Barnsley, its past but with an absolute focus on the present, offering hands-on interactive experiences for all the family.

What can the retail sector learn from Barnsley?

Health uses will also form part of the development with the announcement last week that the NHS will be hosting a new Community Diagnostic Centre at The Glassworks.

Much like the biggest cities are targeting through residential and office schemes, our new cornerstones will help provide more reasons for people to spend the day in town centre.

We wanted to address a lack of outdoor and inviting public space, so we factored in a public square with performance areas, fountains, and ample seating areas. We are making a destination that is quite simply, more pleasant and enjoyable to be, regardless of the reason you may be visiting.

The pandemic has underlined the importance of public space and having good quality public space, combined with a busy events programme, will no doubt fuel our sense of community and character in the run up to Christmas.

New figures from Centre for Cities suggest Barnsley’s recovery from the pandemic is already amongst the strongest in the country, with an 18 per cent increase in footfall between July and August – outperforming the likes of Leeds and Sheffield.

We’re confident that footfall will continue to improve as more of our retail and leisure venues open. The Glass Works construction may be drawing to a close, but we must not forget how fundamentally important our town centres are to the communities we serve. In many ways they can tell you everything you need to know about a place – the character, the people, the ambition and the pride of a destination.

These are exceptional times, but the work we do now will help the places we call home to flourish in the years and decades to come.

Kathy McArdle is Service Director Regeneration and Culture at Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council.

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