Dave Miller

The towns fund will attract investment – but beware the downside

Last September, the government published a list of 100 towns that will benefit from a towns fund worth £3.6bn.

The government hopes to “level up our great towns, raising living standards and ensuring they can thrive with transformative investment in transport, technology, skills and culture”, according to Robert Jenrick, secretary of state for housing, communities and local government.

The bulk of these towns (75%) are part of the Northern Powerhouse and Midlands Engine.

A number of the places on the list — from Bishop Auckland and Blyth Valley in the North East to West Bromwich and Wolverhampton in the West Midlands — have since swung from Labour to the Conservatives at last general election. Those seats now form the basis of Boris Johnson’s parliamentary majority, so delivering on these promises will need to be a high priority for the government.

The prospect of up to £25m pouring into some of the country’s more neglected towns should be a catalyst for private investment. Our business is based in Blackpool, one of the towns set to receive its share of funding (and where both parliamentary seats are now Conservative-held), so I’m hoping for great things.

I’ve already had conversations with people thinking about taking on empty properties, renovating and refurbishing them, either to attract tenants with a view to holding as an investment or alternatively looking at a short-term strategy to increase the value of the asset on the back of this wave of public funding.

There is also an opportunity for lenders to get in on the act: many would-be investors will need short-term finance to purchase the properties, and to fund the works required to bring them into profitable use.

As always, however, there is a downside risk. We’ve seen plenty of regeneration projects fall by the wayside in the past. Pump-priming won’t necessarily address the fundamental reasons for long-term economic decline. And even if an area as a whole sees a positive impact, that’s still no guarantee that individual investments will flourish.

Through the mid-term reports we carry out for lenders, we see plenty of examples of exit strategies that may have made perfect sense at the start of the loan term, but have gone way off beam. This can be the case with any loan — but borrowers may be more inclined than usual to be over optimistic when there is the hope that some of the government’s cash injection will flow round the economic bloodstream and into the hands of local businesses.

Lenders will need to keep a close eye on how their loan book is performing to make sure investments are living up to borrowers’ aspirations or if there is any cause for concern.

Loans increasingly need to be viewed less as one-off deals struck between a lender and a borrower, and more as a journey the two parties make together. It’s best for the borrower to be engaged not only at the inception of the loan, but throughout the journey, creating a relationship that stands the test of time.

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