Town Centre to be revitalised as part of plan to boost business

Town Centre to be revitalised as part of plan to boost business

In an exclusive interview with the Times, Council Leader Tom Dawlings has revealed proposals are being drawn up to boost business in the town by reshaping the area.

He admits the Royal town is facing challenges, following a shock response from a Government Minister after a visit in September.

Cllr Dawlings said: “The top of the town is the area where I am most focused on at the moment.

“It is the area I took the Secretary of State [for Communities and Local Government] around and he was very surprised that the prosperous town of Tunbridge Wells looked so shabby.”

The tour with former Minster, Robert Jenrick, came as the Times reported on how traders at the top of Mount Pleasant Road are struggling with footfall compared to their busier counterparts in the High Street and The Pantiles.

In particular, the town’s flagship shopping centre, Royal Victoria Place [RVP], has been plagued by empty units and a lack of footfall.

Cllr Dawlings, who represents Benenden and Cranbrook said: “We talk to [owners] British Land quite a bit, and in lots of ways we are very fortunate RVP was bought by professionals and not a pension fund or some other investment company, so having someone running it that specialise in it is good, but against that, life is not easy for them either right now.

“The advantages we have though are that most of the businesses and empty shops are national retailers, but local retailers and the locally owned businesses do seem to have survived the pandemic.

“We have the same problems other town centres have but we do have a lot of local business that are doing well.”

But he warned that Tunbridge Wells was ‘more vulnerable’ than other towns facing similar challenges, especially as the Borough Council is facing a near £2millon deficit in the next financial year.

He said: “First I want to say we have no plans to cut services yet but are looking to rationalise many of our assets. We have a lot of buildings that are not suitable for modern times and that are expensive to maintain, such the Town Hall.

“The co-working arrangements for the Town Hall, sub-letting two thirds of the building to co-working, could result in potentially 200-300 people coming into town on a regular basis.

“This Council is particularly vulnerable as we get three times more from fees and charges than we do in Council tax and we are providing a great deal more services than other councils like a theatre, like a crematorium, like the sports clubs.

“As we don’t get any money from Government and as our Council Tax is capped, our income is hugely dependent on people coming to the theatre or to town and using the car parks.”

He said the Council is now devising a town centre plan, which is expected to be published next year, where they hope to unveil proposals to drive more footfall to the area.

“The entire focus of our property planning in our Local Plan has been in the town centre and the Town Centre Area Plan is being worked on now,” he said. “The sort of things emerging are, we might shrink the town centre on the more extreme parts of the shopping areas to move to residential.”

Areas such as the top of Upper Grosvenor Road, have already seen commercial premises such as the old Job Centre being turned into residential properties.

But Cllr Dawlings wants to go further. He continued: “Think of the far end of Camden Road. Moving the businesses closer into town is the sort of approach we want to work on.

“Town centres are going to be based on people so if you have more people living close to the town centre you have more people coming to the town centre to shop and work.

“And this is why we have put preservation orders on properties in the town centre to protect them as offices and business in the town.

town. “But we are very focused on understanding the issues of business such as British Land and other major employers in town.

“One thing we can do is to encourage further business growth because we are able to keep a higher percentage of business rates.”

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