Westover ward councillors Brian Smedley and Kathy Pearce joined the Bridgwater Town Team for a walkabout in the Town Centre talking to traders and shoppers and highlighting problems and solutions.
Starting at the Penel Orlieu end of town the chronic state of the Classic Buildings was a clear problem. Commercial agent Ian Walker said “This is a major entry point to the town centre and something needs to be done fast here.” Town Clerk Alan Hurford agreed saying “This is a gateway that let’s down the town from the outset.” Sedgemoor Chief Executive Kerry Rickards said he “.. believed something would happen here and very quickly.” Commercial agent Lyndon Brett said he was “Frankly embarrassed by the length of time the planning process took. The approach seems to be ‘the answers ‘no’ now what’s the question!?”
‘Specialist shops’ needed
Moving through the High street it was noted that while the Jazz Café had finally been given the go ahead, the delay through strict planning rules, had almost scuppered it. Similarly a lengthy delay on the planned Noodle bar in the old Atmosphere shop, had now resulted in that project being pulled. Lyndon Brett, who has long been a critic of Sedgemoor’s rigid approach to planning, said “Planning is too prescriptive and it needs to be more flexible. It’s better to have a user that can demonstrate some activity than an empty shop which just demonstrates decline. “ However, he pointed to specialist shops such as Inspirational Craft as a good example of a modern approach to retail . “This is a specialist shop which uses postal, online and High street shop window to sell itself. These are the kind of places we want.”
Roger Smith, manager of the Angel Place shopping centre, said “Footfall tapers off between the Penel Orlieu and the shopping centre but picks up between Angel Place and the Cornhill”. He said the idea of ‘shop jackets’ had proven to be successful. These are false fronts for empty shops that suggest what the empty shop could look like “We were told that within 6 months of putting in these shop jackets we would let all the adjacent premises and they were right. “ A similar frontage was suggested for shops like the former Atmosphere.
Town centre parking important for access
Ian Walker said Sedgemoor had “Missed the opportunity of town centre parking by letting the Priory site go for housing instead of for a multi storey car park and now there was no space left”
Cllr Brian Smedley said “If, as seems likely, the Tesco project is withdrawn there’s a further opportunity for parking there”
Cllr Mick Lerry, leader of the Labour group on Sedgemoor, agreed, stressing the need for leisure facilities to bring people in “Good cafes in town are also a boon to retaining people in the centre. These provide a place to meet and the town centre needs more leisure facilities to bring people in to it in the first place”
Cllr Kathy Pearce cited the High street café Daisy May’s as a successful example of this with “an attractive frontage, and a novel interpretation on a theme.”
‘Improve the streetscape’
Standing alongside the one day Italian market in Fore street it was clear that the main streets needed tidying up . Bird mess splattered the pavements and weeds grew randomly while empty shops looked on forlornly.
Mick Lerry said “The Celebration mile project is something that we need to focus on, to brighten up a targeted area such as this. We need to speed this up.”
Ian Walker said “We have to do this now and get on with it. In 2 years time it will be too late. Workers coming to Hinkley Point will be wanting to spend their money in the town and if they can’t find what they want here they’ll just go to Taunton. We also need to be building homes for people on high incomes so we retain those incomes in this town.”
Alan Hurford agreed saying “We need to crack on with the celebration mile so that people can see something happening now.”
West Quay pedestrianisation footfall a success
Moving on to West Quay the success of the pedestrianisation project which was attracting new traders to the street was offset by the ridiculous delay caused by County Council’s failure to process the street trading licences that had been in since last October. Brian Smedley said “These people have done everything they were asked to do. Three premises have applied for chairs and tables outside – four if you anticipate the new Indian restaurant that will go into the old furniture shop and now the good weather’s here they’re missing out on trade.”
Brenda Brunskill and Dinah Petrie, who have recently opened the Hair and Beauty salon ‘Feather Cuts’ said “We chose West Quay exactly because of the pedestrianisation and the footfall. The street is becoming a nice little community in itself and a great place to work. Business here is good. “ Cllr Pearce immediately made an appointment.
Alan Hurford said an important development would be works to the town bridge which would help refocus the town on the river “as it always did”.
How and When to ‘market’ Bridgwater
Phil Adams, Sedgemoor’s Economic Development Manager, said planners had to think in longer terms such as 25 to 30 years to protect areas but this often conflicts with the 5-10 year retail plans that are needed. He pointed to the positive plans for Eastover at the other end of the Town centre where a new hotel would bring people directly into the town to be accommodated and would be done in conjunction with the developments proposed for the former Hospital site.
The discussion focussed on how to or even ‘whether to’ market Bridgwater. Could we market it in the state it was currently in? Should we speed up the works on the celebration mile to show what could be done and then market a new look Bridgwater to attract in retailers? Roger Smith stressed the importance of the ‘streetscape’, Kathy Pearce urged better ‘signage’ and Lyndon Brett said we ‘had to work with the commercial realities,being flexible enough to adjust rents and business rates’ .
Ian Walker reminded the group that we had “18 months to 2 years to do this” and believed “the council should take the initiative.”
Brian Smedley summed up “One problem is that there isn’t just one council , there’s three. Town, District and County don’t always sing from the same hymn sheet. But we’ve got to start somewhere and so I’ll be putting this before the Town Council at the next meeting.”