A major initiative to rejuvenate and revive the towns of West Sussex was unveiled on Tuesday.
Spearheaded by the leader of West Sussex County Council Louise Goldsmith, the launch event included community leaders from across the region – representing borough councils, the LEP, business groups and the church.
Held at Ede’s House in Chichester’s West Street, ‘Let’s Talk About Our Towns’ began the debate into the key challenges and opportunities that our changing town centres are facing.
As more and more residents shop online, there is a real threat that once thriving high streets could become a shadow of themselves reduced to fast food takeaways and betting shops.
Mrs Goldsmith said: "We have got some amazing historic towns across the county and we’ve got a wonderful city in Chichester, but things are changing for towns and we need to make sure that we are at the fore to help to ensure that we have vibrant towns that people want to visit and enjoy the day and Let’s Talk About Our Towns is all about that."
Three guest speakers – Wayne Hemmingway, Jackie Sadek, and Bill Grimsey – discussed the dangers of doing nothing and the opportunities of exploring and implementing new ideas.
Mr Hemmingway looked back to a generation when anyone with a great idea and just £10 in their pocket could make something of it. And he reminded attendees of the sheer joy and sense of community in original Roman towns – Chichester, of course, being Roman in origin.
Ensuring that town centres captured the mood and culture of the area, encouraged creativity and ‘making things’ and brought people together were seen as key themes. Mr Grimsey is a retail specialist with a wealth of experience leading companies like Wickes and author of The Grimsey Review 2 ‘It’s time to reshape our town centres’.
He said the first step was to establish a clear business plan for each town centre. That should be supported by strong leadership. If those two pieces of the jigsaw were in place then raising the finance would follow almost inevitably.
Chairman of the Bognor Regis Business Improvement District Paul Wells, who attended, said afterwards: "I think that it was really useful to get together.
"I will be reporting back to the board on what was said last night and the comments that we had from the speakers.
"We are listening. There were a lot of good comments an good advice from the speakers.
"What local authorities said was interesting in how they move their strategies and how that will work with planning policy and business rates etc.
"People were agreement there that it is something that the government and local authorities need to look at."
The editor of this newspaper Gary Shipton concluded the evening by drawing together the main themes.
He said his titles were ‘100 per cent’ committed to supporting the initiative and it was vital we kept our town centres vibrant and relevant in fast-changing times.
Designer puts focus on culture in towns
Speaking at the event, Wayne Hemingway a shared a vision of town centres bursting with culture.
The leading designer and founder of Hemingway Design gave examples of success stories from Blackburn to Berlin.He said: "The idea that town centres are just about retail, shopping and consumption was absolutely crazy and was something that I have always been against.
"I’m actually happy when shops close down if those shops are not serving the people – a new generation coming through.
"If retail was right, it would be surviving."
"For me, a vibrant town centre will attract a late-20s couple who are starting to look at having kids but like city living and think they can have two or three kids but still go out and dance."
The take-home message from Wayne was the importance of culture.
"If all your towns consider culture the will do well. There is no regeneration without culture – culture is the driver," he said. A member of the audience asked: "Do you think young people are essential for the revitalisation of town centres?"
Wayne replied: "Yes because old people, each year, that generation dissipates – that’s life."
Building homes that work for towns
We should be building homes that work for our towns, a former adviser to the Minister of Cities said.
Jackie Sadek is the founder and chief operational officer of UK regeneration and former advisor to the minister for cities. She said: "I believe you can bring forward new homes, at a pace, at a volume in places where people want to live and you can do it without living over your existing commuity and without compromising your natural environment.
"I’m so cross about housebuilding in this country that I nearly spontaneously combusted.
"I tend to prove that I can do it better so my stuff is 25% above national living space standards in in villages that are growing out a country park, cycling and walking and having a proper life.
"It’s all about the qualilty of your life and not being dependent on your car and certainly not being dependent on out of town retail. We are making sure that all our new residents are using the new town centres.
"That’s my mission and its my lifes work. She added that speaking to district leaders she said: "This is your moment to populate this policy. Unless you sieze power, frankly, all is lost."
Place more focus on community hubs
Retail specialist ex-CEO of Wickes, Focus DIY and Iceland, Bill Grimsey spoke about a move away from retail and placing a focus on ‘community hubs’ in town centres.
He said: "The good news is the government has woken up. The bad news is that it’s you they are pointing at. I’m a retailer and I caused the problem. My generation grew up and cloned every town in the UK and made them all look the same and now we know that isn’t the future."
Bill spoke about The Grimsey Review, his review of the future of the high street which aimed to come up with suggestion for local government, local authorities and businesses to take action.
Bill added: "I have been through the retail cycle but these high streets and your challenges in West Sussex has little or nothing to do with retail. Stop thinking retail is going to save your town centres. What you need to do is start seeing them as a community hub. Focused on housing, health, education, leisure, arts. The point is you make a community hub that will make a difference. It’s about the independent small businesses in the country need incubating, developing and support to grow."
Leader asks for people to commit to town vision
The leader of West Sussex County Council asked for commitment from the people who attended the Let’s Talk About Our Towns event.
Cheers and applause met the leader’s final words at the event on Tuesday, which discussed the future of towns across the county.
Louise Goldsmith said: "Tonight we have had some fantastic speakers to really do some thought provoking work to see what we can do to really reshape our towns to be at the front of the county.
"If you’re not stimulated by tonight, then what are you stimulated by? We have got really great opportunities here.
"That will move us to do something different. I have got members here who have been sharing their concerns about the towns – we are here to help.
"We certainly can help to make things happen and I think I’d like to get a little bit of commitment and get people behind this. Is everyone going to get behind this? Because I’m going to."
Mrs Goldsmith added that there was £55million set aside for historic towns in the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s Autumn Budget last Wednesday.
She said: "I think that is going to be a good play for us in historic towns.
"If we don’t make the most of it we have uglied our jobs, so thank you very much because it has been terrific but it is, to quote Churchill, not the end of the evening – this is the beginning."