Local authorities should be central to helping town centres recover, delegates heard at last week’s UkPropSocial in Newbury.

Neil Hockin, director and head of shopping centre leasing for Lunson Mitchenall, spoke at the meeting, held in the former Debenhams shop in Parkway Shopping Centre on Thursday, May 12.

He outlined changes happening nationally and abroad and said local councils need to look at innovative ways to help finance their town centre schemes.

He told the meeting: “I think they are absolutely key to everything that happens in urban regeneration. I think the work that Hemingway (Design) has done here (Newbury town centre masterplan) is really, really cool but it doesn’t stop me having ideas.

“Implementing those ideas is the acid test and we need local authorities to be involved throughout the development process and to look at innovative ways to help with financing.

“Getting development debt financing, retail financing, is really tricky at the moment. I don’t think that we necessarily need local authorities to pick up the tab but they can help with guarantees, underwrites and loans and, probably most importantly, by anchoring developments.

“I’ve had the thought for a long time that every local authority or Government property requirement should be the starting point of a regeneration project and that should be the heart of a town centre. That brings people in and it brings money in which is absolutely critical.

“As the private sector we have to find better ways to work hand-in-hand with local authorities.”

David Jones, managing director of Evans Jones, said, because Newbury is seen as ‘ok’ it cannot attract public sector finance.

He added: “I think where I see comparables is with places like outlet centres and the Parkway where there’s a single owner which can control everything that operates within that environment. We need to be generating that within a town centre environment and creating places where people want to come.

“We’ve gone from a model where people had to come into town centres to shop to, now, people needing a reason to come into a town and, hopefully, shop.”

He also called for the local authority to be central to regeneration.

He said: “The local authority needs to operate like the owner of a centre like this and work with all other stakeholders and accept that they will do things that will make a loss and have the press jam it down their throats – ‘how dare you make a loss using taxpayers’ money’. Ultimately, in my view, it’s for the greater good and the community in total.”

Mr Jones said he believes retail proposed in the Eagle Quarter scheme would be better as food & beverage operations and he questioned whether the introduction of Build-to-Rent in the scheme would work in competition with the thousands of units coming to Reading.

Susan Halliwell, executive director, place, for West Berkshire Council said a significant amount of inward investment is planned over the next 10 years but the council had not shouted about it.

She argued that implementation is the key next step in delivering Newbury’s vision and the Hemingway masterplan.

She said: “These strategies and masterplans are worthless if they are just pieces of paper stuck on the shelf or in the cloud. We have to make them work, we have to get a plan to deliver them and that’s absolutely what we are doing at the moment.

“It’s putting together that programme to understand what short term quick wins we can deliver here and now and what level of investment we need over the medium to longer term to actually make this a reality.

“And a key priority area to focus on is the Wharf because we can actually do something about the Wharf and we’ve commissioned consultants to work on the design and we are looking for investment.”

Mrs Halliwell said there is a case for local levelling up and the council is to bid for money from the UK Shared Prosperity Fund to plan investment over the next three years.

She added: “So we have plans afoot to move this agenda on but it can’t be done by us alone so I’m really keen to engage with those interested to look at how we can support private investment and maybe improve what we do, like the planning service, how we can make improvements so that we can grease the wheels to keep this moving forward.”

See also: Is Everyman coming to Newbury?

Image (l-r): David Jones, managing director of Evans Jones, Neil Hockin, director of Lunson Mitchenall, Susan Halliwell, executive director – place, West Berkshire Council, Matthew Battle, managing director of UK Property Forums, Andrew Marmot, centre manager, Parkway Shopping Newbury.

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