Evoke Transport Planning managing director and Newbury resident Richard Stacey offers his hopes for the town’s regeneration.
In the two years since forming Evoke there have, of course, been many changes on a global scale and challenges that one could not have imagined.
But one trend that commenced years before is the changing face of the High Street. The latest PWC report Store Openings and Closures – H1 2021 shows that town centres are suffering more than other areas. How towns can react to the changing retail environment has been much covered in these pages.
One local example, which is close to my heart as a long standing resident, Newbury, is trying to enhance its standing in the hierarchy and to shift from being a dormitory market town and creating what is often termed a ‘New Newbury’ – with one key advantage being the ability to commute to other locations by rail (ie Reading and London) and road (Milton Park, Harwell, AWE).
There are several key development proposals and studies but are they seeking to achieve the same outcome and is Newbury ready for change?
The Eagle Quarter presents yet another welcome proposal for the deservedly, much maligned Kennet Centre (a relic of 1980s shopping mall trend of its time).
Ambitious plans have been presented but these have been forced back to the drawing board following criticism from councillors, residents and heritage groups due to the scale of the proposals.
They have since been downsized – a disappointing outcome for a site that would do much to draw people back into the centre and enhance the connection between the rail station, via the soon-to-be-complete Market Street development, into the rest of the town.
Currently, on departing the station to the north, the first thing visitors would do is turn around and check the times of the next train home again. This is a must-happen scheme and if Newbury wants to compete, we should not be afraid of our ambition of drawing businesses and residents back into the town centre.
In contrast, the HemingwayDesign report, released in June following extensive consultations and public surveys (which were extended to July with results yet to be published), has been criticised for being unambitious, particularly when it comes to that age old battle ground of pedestrianisation versus traffic.
West Berkshire Council tried the full pedestrianisation of the central retail area, Northbrook St (currently only traffic free from 10am to 5pm), for a limited period as a response to Covid and social distancing requirements but were quick to drop the measure.
But isn’t it now time to be brave and embrace this change? Why not stand out as an example in how to react to the climate change agenda and enhance health and wellbeing in the central area whilst recognising that it serves a large, predominantly rural, catchment, often with limited public transport choices.
And what of the London Road Industrial Estate? This often-forgotten area on the other side of the A339 has the impression of being remote and severed from the town centre, but is actually only a short distance and has pleasant, existing walking and cycle routes.
Connecting jobs with town centre residents and the high street would assist in creating a vibrant economy.
It remains to be seen how HemingwayDesign will react to the comments but let’s ensure this is not just another report that will shelf sit and that Newbury doesn’t miss an opportunity to create a unique identity and position for itself with a niche offering; it is not, and cannot be, an Oxford or Reading.
Others have also suggested that the town must also guard against being a ‘Hemingway theme park’, as they are also currently involved in masterplans for other towns in the South East. In my opinion, based on initial presentations, there is enough to suggest that will not be the case and differences will be celebrated.
The masterplan should showcase joined up thinking, be used as the framework to draw together the major projects and demonstrate how they will shape and contribute to a viable townscape.
Ambition is not a bad thing if it is well-thought and balanced.
And there is no better time than now as we look for both a post-Covid recovery and the opportunity to exploit the migration away from London.
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