Town Development Forum Scrutinises ‘Town Deal Fund’

Keith Thomas, lead consultant on the Town Deal Fund

On Tuesday 23rd November Bridgwater Town Council’s Town Development Forum met to scrutinise the long awaited Town Deal Fund.  The meeting was held in  Bridgwater Town Hall and featured  KEITH THOMAS the lead consultant for PER Consultants alongside the Town Council’s Economy Portfolio Holder  Cllr Mick Lerry. Bridgwater Town Deal includes some £22.6 million for some 11 projects. This amounts to 94% of what was requested. This was added to by the ‘Levelling Up’ fund which added a further £10 million, thereby allowed 2 of these projects to be funded by this and more money to be allocated around the other 9 projects. The next phase involves increased public consultation, hence the appearance at the Town Development Forum.

 

Town Council Leader Brian Smedley looking slightly more cheerful than usual

Chairing the meeting, Town Council Leader Cllr Brian Smedley (Westover) said “The Town Deal initiative was introduced by this Government a couple of months before the 2019 General Election. It’s stated purpose was to regenerate town centres to boost businesses, improve infrastructure and bring communities together. As one of 101 towns named by the Government as eligible, Bridgwater was able to bid for up to £25 million from a national £3.6 billion Towns Fund pot. However, Bridgwater Town Council is NOT in the driving seat here – that’s Sedgemoor District Council, which in fact only now has 2 years of life left in it. “

Cllr Mick Lerry, the Town Council’s sole rep on the Town Deal board

Bridgwater Town Council-despite being the potential chief benefactor, was allowed just one rep on the board and that’s Cllr Mick Lerry, our Economy portfolio holder.  Mick has done a great job in ensuring that the projects included go some way to matching the towns aspirations. That said we need to be clear that this money is clearly not adequate to address all the issues the town faces and people would be wrong to suggest or assume that it is. In fact it doesn’t even amount to a 1/4 of the cost of the by-pass that people said was the towns priority when EDF asked what we wanted and then said we couldn’t have it. But this is money offered and we will take it. The whole process comes at a very strange time when we are going through a totally unnecessary and unwanted major re-haul of local government. Somerset will become even more all-powerful (they’re not here tonight and don’t engage at the best of times), Sedgemoor are the key authority-but will be abolished within 2 years and so it’s down to Bridgwater Town Council -the smallest of the councils with the least powers at our disposal, to pick up the pieces. This will hopefully change after Unitary and we will regain the powers that we lost back in the 1970s. This meeting tonight was the start of a wider community engagement to ensure that we make the best use of the money that is there. For this reason we are releasing the minutes of the meeting publicly.” 

Background papers

A Town Deal intervention area  Icon for pdf Bridgwater Intervention Area [4.11MB]

Town Deal Board. See who’s on it here.

Historic minutes  Bridgwater Town Deal Board

Outline

  1. The Bridgwater tidal barrier, which will provide better flood protection to at least 11,300 properties and 1,500 businesses from 2024
  2. Delivering the Celebration Mile between the historic docks and the railway station, creating “new covid-safe spaces” and holding events to promote local businesses
  3. Restoring the docks near Northgate, regenerating the area into “a new leisure and tourism destination” for the town
  4. Upgrading Bridgwater Arts Centre on Castle Street, making it a more flexible “covid-safe environment” in time for its 75th birthday in October
  5. Improvements to Bridgwater Town Hall and the enclosed theatre, including better disabled access and more office and meeting spaces for community and social enterprises
  6. Increasing the capacity of The Engine Room on High Street, allowing its media centre to engage with a large number of local creatives

    Bridgwater Docks – a major project for the Town Council
  7. Creating a flexible business and enterprise hub in the town centre, allowing smaller businesses to hold taster events and host ‘pop-up’ shops so they can test ideas before taking on a permanent base in the high street
  8. Bridgwater carnival . Improvements to the Bridgwater Carnival production space off the A38 Bristol Road, designed to “future-proof” this flagship event and its associated activities in the post-coronavirus period
  9. Employing new town wardens and event ambassadors to “build confidence for visitors” and discourage antisocial behaviour in the town centre

Levelling up additions

  1. Improvements to the Dunball roundabout near Junction 23 of the M5, to ease traffic congestion and unlock new housing and employment sites
  2. Improved pedestrian and cycling facilities, including connections between the town centre and key employment area

Bridgwater Town Development Forum held in the Town Hall                      23rd November 2021

Chair Cllr Brian Smedley

Secretary Cllr Kathy Pearce

Keith Thomas outlined the history of the Town Deal project

BS welcomed delegates and the general public to the meeting and introduced Keith Thomas, Consultant working with the Towns Fund Board.

KT, (PER Consultants) gave a brief summary of his qualifications and background to the Towns Fund process.  He is a Chartered Town Planner, Chartered Town Surveyor, Member of the Geographical Society and had worked on many projects nationally, including a lot across Somerset.  He was appointed by the Towns Fund Board in August 2020 to prepare an Investment Plan and continues to work with the team to prepare the business case, which is necessary to access the funding from government.

The Town Deal Fund was established by government on an invitation basis.  A list of 101 towns were identified as having potential to be considered for a Town Deal fund, following previous city and regional growth deals in other parts of the country.  Bridgwater and Glastonbury the two towns identified in Somerset.

The Investment Plan was a 30-year vision about future of your town/place.  The aim of the Towns Fund was to provide a short-term funding opportunity to help achieve long term aspirations, ie to ‘set the scene’.

The Bridgwater Vision (2009) was a good starting point in understanding opportunities and potential.  The Towns Fund would provide opportunities for Bridgwater to realise the benefits of wider growth and to provide a strategy which would broaden Bridgwater’s ‘offer’, other than shopping and act as a catalyst to trigger further funding.

The Bridgwater Towns Fund Investment Plan was submitted in January 2021 (summary document available online).

The Government also set the agenda that an independent board of representatives were to take the lead in developing the Investment Plan, to be led by an independent Chair.  Local politicians were represented, but not leading.  Dr Fiona Macmillan was the original Chair (former Principal of Bridgwater and Taunton College).  She has been succeeded by Paul Moore.  Paul runs a local business and sits on the Bridgwater Chamber of Commerce. The range of membership was very important: business, political and community representatives.

The government awarded £23.2m (£25m requested).

SDC then submitted a further bid for Bridgwater from the Levelling Up Fund.  A further £10m awarded for Bristol Road corridor projects.

It is anticipated that the above funding could leverage a further £140m of investment.

The future of the docks featured highly. Boater Tim Gilbert confronts Mr Thomas about lack of urgency from Somerset County Council and Canals and Rivers Trust

Whilst agreed in principle, the Towns Fund offer is subject to submission of a further business case, ie to show that projects are viable and deliverable.   Projects must demonstrate value for money.

SDC is the Accountable Body to ensure that the funds are spent wisely against the government’s rules and able to audited to demonstrate there is a return on investment.

A lot of technical work still needs to be done which must be completed by August 2022.

There will be a phased programme of projects going forward with 3 primary aims – to re-energise the town centre – reconnect the town with the growth around the town and to future-proof the town against Covid.

Schemes need to demonstrate sustainable access and movement into and around the town; focus effort on town centre and will be assessed against climate change response and accessibility to all members of the community.

There are 3 Categories going forward with the following 11 projects.

  • Unlocking growth
  • Places and spaces
  • Diversifying the offer in the town centre
Gary Perrett from Bridgwater Area Cycling Campaign- opportunities for greener transport solutions

Unlocking Growth:

  1. Tidal Barrier (long term business case approved by Treasurer).  Moving into next stage of detailed design and pricing.  Due to start 2023 and complete 2025.
  2. Dunball Junction (although now to be recovered through Levelling Up Fund).
  3. Walking and Cycling links.  Preparing an Active Travel Plan, working with cycling community.

Places and Spaces (public realm improvement):

  1. Restoration of Bridgwater Docks to its full potential:  including repair of lock gates, improving the dock basin and the physical area around the docks.
  2. Celebration Mile: improving links from the railway station to the docks: including the Northgate Development; connecting through Angel Place, Angel Crescent through to Clare Street and Fore Street (ie opportunities for market type events); Eastover improvements and St John Street.   Also, connecting the College to the Station.
  3. Arts Centre enhancements to create more flexible spaces
  4. Town Hall improvements, including the provision of better seating and facilities.
  5. Engine Room: ability to open up into upper storey and provide further capacity for digital media support and training.
Mike Slade of IWA expressed concerns about the state of the river talks to Eastover councillor Tony Heywood about including improvements to the Eastover element of the bid

Diversifying the offer in the town centre:

  1. Bridgwater Carnival – Protecting the Future of Carnival: improvements to their workshop spaces on Bristol Road.   Making Carnival accessible to all ages, genders and abilities.  To provide modern facilities with heating and lighting.  Carnival was seen as a key participant to raising civic pride in the town.
  2. Bridgwater Step Up:  To provide opportunities for new business start-ups, ie pop-up facilities.  Providing focal point for business support and engagement.  Flexible space and uses, ie meeting areas, ie Zoom Booth.  Opportunities for more formal dedicated office space for established business.  Also, opportunity to further open up space in the town hall for small businesses and enterprises.
  3. Town Wardens and Event Ambassadors: Arising from concerns raised about ASB in the town centre and a sense of feeling unsafe.  The new wardens and ambassadors would make connections with existing services such as Police and Outreach Support Teams.  A revenue funded project.

The Towns Fund Team were currently developing all these projects into more detail and working with Bridgwater Community Conversation, Spark, BTC and BTC Youth Forum this week.  Aiming to have similar event early next year with Chamber of Commerce.

There would be a sequenced approach.  For example, plans for Eastover had progressed significantly and they were now getting close to budgeting.  The Town Deal would not pick up over-spend, so there were choices to be made about what is possible and what would need to be progressed with further bids and funding grants (ie future Levelling Up funds etc).  The types of scheme would continue to evolve over a period of time.  The first investment would be infrastructure improvements.

KT concluded his presentation by saying that going forward, the Board are looking to create focus groups to develop plans on individual scheme.

BS thanked KT for his presentation and gave a brief summary that whilst this project was SDC-led, many of the projects, especially docks, mirrored the Town Council’s aspirations. Arts, culture and heritage were heavily featured and important for vibrant for town. A green recovery was vitally important going forward and the views of Youth Forum would be important, as it was vital that this project provided on-going opportunities for the young people in the town.

Ray Alexander from IWA shares concerns with Docks residents about figures needed to ensure Bascule bridge and locks were restored.

There then followed a Q&A session, as follows:

Questions/comments:

Docks

Q: Several concerns were asked about the docks’ situation in terms of the present negotiations between Somerset County Council (SCC) and Canal and Rivers Trust (CRT) dragging on and whether timescales for the Towns Fund would be jeopardise this project?

A: KT gave a brief overview of the CRT lease situation and stated there were still a number of issues to be resolved between SCC and CRT.  He stated that the future organisation taking on the docks would need to ensure income and have a viable business plan.

Q: Had an amount been ear-marked for the docks?

A: £4m.  This was the 2nd largest single project in the bid.

Q: RA (Chairman of IWA) asked about plans for the Bascule Bridge.  Its heritage credentials were important as research had shown that the Bascule Bridge was the oldest in the country and had connections with Brunel.  He also asked about Bowerings Mill (although not part of the listed docks) – were they included in the overall programme?

A: The Bascule Bridge was included as part of the package but needed further investigation as to what could be directly funded through existing funding and elements which may need additional sources of funding.  The next phase of activity was to establish a costing plan.  So far, this had been delayed because of on-going aforementioned negotiations.  No ancillary buildings were included within the plan, although discussions had taken place with private partners.  It was hoped that the Towns Fund would leverage further investment from other sources.

Questions from the general public lasted nearly 2 hours-was there enough money, was it the right project, what about ongoing maintenance?

Q: What about the connection between the docks and the river?

A: Would be part of next stage of investigation of feasibility of how docks could be used.  Needed to link with the EA on work with the barrier.  Challenges of salt and river water mixing.  What would be practical and achievable.  It was on the radar to consider, test and explore.  May need to prioritise future-proofing of historic features.

IWA had long term aspirations to encourage boats up the river and into the docks.  Salt water had always been an issue but was manageable.  The tidal barrier should address that problem.  Long term discussions were underway with the EA.

Regarding ‘Dilapidations’: The Lease sets out a number of conditions within its 21 year lease.  The barge lock has to be kept to a minimum of its 1999 condition.  Instead of reinstating 1999 condition, betterment should be sought.

The lease provides for Newtown Lock to be kept under its full operating condition.  In the 1990s, plenty of evidence of sea-going boats in the docks.

River craft pay more to moor, so this was a business opportunity.  Boating visitors to the town would significantly benefit the local economy.

Sea-going craft needed to be able to have the spans of the bascule bridge raised.  The bridge was the responsibility of the Highways Department whilst the winding gear (in poor condition) was the responsibility of CRT under the lease.

Q: Was there any indication as to when dilapidation works may start?

A: Discussions had been more protracted than hoped.  Business case must be completed by August 2022.  Expected that government would take 3-4 months until they released funding for next stage.

Q: Could an arrangement be made for boats to be back in the docks before the end of the process as there was a risk of losing users if process was too protracted?

A: Feasibility Plan was required plus programming of engineering works (may be easier without boats in situ).  Would need to be clear that there was a viable use and viable end user by the time the business plan was submitted.

Q: Were there specific plans for options for return on the docks?

A: Business case was required to demonstrate there was an economic return. Operators of the docks would need to have a viable operational business plan.

Q: Everything had gone quiet since the boats had left the docks, largely done by boat owners themselves and had resulted in a personal emotional cost. Why can’t SCC come to an agreement with CRT? Is there a risk of losing money ear-marked for the docks?

A: SCC wanted resolution.  Responsibility was with CRT. SCC have had a survey of works.  It was CRT’s responsibility to price and do the work.

Q: £4m allocated to the docks.  Was there a list of how much has been allocated to each of the projects?

A: No list published.  Design work underway to establish extent of works and costings.  Aim is that Town Hall scheme would go forward as a business case in January 2022.  Celebration Mile: February/March.  Over next year, sequence of business plans.  After that info would be made public.

General concerns were raised over general lack of SCC response regarding the docks and the lack of responses of existing agencies to ASB problems at the docks.  It was pointed out that these issues needed to be followed up with ward councillors.

Cycling/Roads/Parking/Transport:

Q: BACC asked how they would ensure that the money was spent wisely and achieve a real difference?  They could offer support regarding cycling links.  They were heavily involved with SCC and Gravity and had mapped out Bridgwater along with feasibility studies.

A: KT replied that SCC would take the lead in establishing an Active Travel Plan.  Once SCC had signed funding agreement from government, they could proceed with further engagement and planning.   Probably next stage to commence in January 2022.

Q: Why was there no mention of car parking?

A: Not explicity included in the investment plans.  Car parking was included in District Local Plan allocations in town centre management.  The aim was to encourage more people to walk and cycle by creating safe and accessible networks.

It was also pointed out that a bid had gone in by SCC for £160m for public transport.  The aim was to improve public transport in Bridgwater to provide a real alternative. As there was a need to reduce emissions in the town as part of climate change.

Carnival City:

Q: Was there a green aspect being looked at to be included, ie green roofs?

A: Yes.  Solar power to be included for buildings.  LEG lights being explored and looking at non-diesel means of generating power (electric tractors etc).  The development workshops would be looking at energy efficiency and bio-diversity and solar and other energy saving proposals.  In longer term, improving the green credentials of the carnival were being explored

Miscellaneous:

Councillor Hilary Bruce checks that Cllr Kathy Pearce is still conscious after 2 hours of minute taking…

Q: Will there be provision for maintenance of completed projects?

A: Ongoing maintenance will then be down to appropriate local authority/owner/management organisation.  SDC will be the accountable body until it ceases to exist.  That function would then transfer to the new Unitary Authority.

Q: Step Up Project. Do you have a building in mind – new or re-purposing?  Do you know who will be running it?

A: £500K allocated to this project so would be re-purposing an existing building.  Undertaking feasibility studies about various ideas and market research.  District Council is likely to take initial ownership and then engage an operator.  No decisions made yet.

Q: MS.  Was anything being done about the Town Bridge as part of Eastover funding?

A: This hadn’t been highlighted during initial consultation.  However, KT would flag this up.

BS brought meeting to a close. Whilst, he said, the funding being offered was not sufficient to affect all the improvements required, we couldn’t turn offers down.  Unitary will bring changes.  One good thing is that Town and Parish Councils will have a greater role and that this funding should be a catalyst for further funding.

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