How should Bognor Regis adapt and improve in a post-pandemic world?

We all know what a great place Bognor Regis is, but how does it position itself to adapt and improve in a post-pandemic world?

Tuesday, 9th March 2021, 12:06 pm
Picturesque Bognor Regis seafront. Pic by Steve Robards

The town has attracted plenty of investment in recent years. The university has a brand-new tech park, Rolls-Royce opened a hub at Oldlands Farm with more businesses planning to move in to the Salt Box site under construction nearby and Butlin’s has also spent significant sums revamping its facilities.

Our town centre has weathered the economic storm of the past decade far better than many other places with a number of new independents setting up shop, while public realm improvements are in motion for the Place St Maur, the seafront bandstand and sunken gardens.

In normal times we host a myriad of exciting and varied events, are lucky to rely on fantastic voluntary and charitable organisations and send our children to excellent schools.

Bognor open for business during the pandemic. Pic by Steve Robards

But as we emerge from lockdown and begin the long recovery from the pandemic, changes will almost inevitably be on the cards for Bognor Regis and its town centre.

We all want the best for our town with the need to build on its strengths and address its weaknesses, but what’s the best way to achieve this?

Last week, Bognor Regis Business Improvement District (BID) outlined the results of a place-branding exercise, which has come up with a shared narrative and consistent themes for partners and stakeholders to reference when delivering initiatives for and community messages about the town.

It has developed three core values: a beacon for a bold future, blue sky thinking, and ready for fun.

Autumnal colour at Hotham Park, Bognor. Pic Steve Robards SR2011142 SUS-201114-130202001

These were distilled by HemingwayDesign following analysis of community-generated perception data.

Its report describes how the company ‘is not here to create a new brand for Bognor Regis’ as it is already exists.

A brand story aims to both develop a sense of pride and help attract visitors, while place branding is about behaviour and reputation rather than logos and campaigns.

Asked about what makes the town unique, respondents mentioned the fantastic quality of life due to the proximity of the beautiful coastline and countryside.

Bognor Regis usually hosts a temporary ice rink in run up to Christmas every year. Pic by Steve Robards

Also mentioned were green spaces such as Hotham Park with its Georgian architecture, the wonderful beaches and coastal villages, as well as Bognor being an affordable place for people to live, work and invest.

One of the main themes from the surveys is the town is seen as ‘dated, cut adrift, scruffy and lacking direction’ with preconceptions perpetuated by the media creating a lack of optimism among some residents.

But it was also described as a great place for entertainment with a thriving amateur music scene.

Meanwhile the town’s unique selling point is seen as the seafront, sheltered sea, award-winning beach, Espalande and pier.

The Bognor Birdman events were a massive success for the town

People highlighted a preference for regeneration of the town centre and seafront, with graduates, tourists and start-up businesses needing incentives to stay.

The leisure and culture offer for young people was felt to be poor, with few places to hangout.

The report says: “Bognor Regis is more than just the place in the postcards.

“Looking back is a problem. The town needs to leave behind the ‘kiss me quick’ image and move on to something new. Something more youthful, more vibrant, cosmopolitan, up-and-coming and forward-looking that is optimistic and presents opportunity, that is based in reality and doesn’t paper over the cracks.

“It’s time to break free from the reputation as a boring faded coastal town and the sadder side of seaside fun that give the impression of a town past its glory days.”

It suggests that Bognor Regis’ personality should be decisive and determined; progressive and embracing change; connected and creative; youthful, vibrant and skilled and a proud coastal resort with timeless charm.

The annual clown convention used to bring huge numbers of people into the town

Meanwhile some of the supporting themes and messaging are listed as bold ideas & big fun, living well on the sun-kissed coast, unspoiled charm & untapped potential, creative coast, Hotham’s history and royally radiant.

‘MASSIVE OPPORTUNITY’

Heather Allen, BID co-ordinator, described how the town did suffer from some negative perceptions, but highlighted how a recent Sun newspaper front page had given them the opportunity to flip the narrative and respond in a positive way by highlighting the best things about the area.

She said: “Everybody wants the very best for Bognor Regis, everybody wants to shift the perception of Bognor Regis and we all want it to be seen for the brilliant, full of potential place that it is.”

She added: “What the place branding offers is a massive opportunity for us to all work on projects but they all fit, they dovetail, and we’re all working to a consistent set of messages.”

Caroline Gosford, Arun’s regeneration manager, said: “If you repeat positive messages over and over you start to challenge these perceptions. We all know there are negative perceptions that plague the town. It’s not going to happen overnight, it’s not a quick process, but it’s about trying to bring everything together in alignment.”

The finished product did not go down well the majority of Bognor Regis regeneration sub-committee members on Thursday night (March 4).

Only one councillor voted in favour of recommending to full council that the place-branding core values and brand filter approach are adopted for all Arun’s activities in the town. Everyone else either voted against or abstained.

Grant Roberts (Con, Arundel and Walberton) said he worried they might be ‘mocked’ for the proposed core values and wanted to see more around being business friendly, culturally rich, innovative, creative and high tech.

He also felt the current core values came across as being written by a 12-year-old and suggested tehy were ‘too simplistic’ and ‘don’t say much’.

He added: “I did not like the bit about Bognor being seen as a joke town and we should use it in a positive way like clown conventions. I do not agree with it. I know Cllr [Francis] Oppler likes his clown conventions, that’s probably why he enjoys so much being deputy leader of the so-called coalition administration. I do not think we should be trying to promote Bognor as a joke town.”

His fellow Conservatives David Edwards and Paul English were more complimentary about the impact of the former annual clown event, citing the huge numbers of people they brought into the town and the buzz generated.

However Cllr English raised concerns about the work being based on 690 responses and felt the core values might be a ‘little bit restrictive’.

He wanted to see an exciting programme of events in 2022 and ‘some really dynamic’ core values, describing the phrase ‘blue sky thinking’ as belonging in the 1960s.

Jim Brooks (Ind, Marine) also asked if the brand filter would limit ‘ingenuity and innovation’ and as an example said he wouldn’t want to see every concession on the seafront painted the same colour.

Sandra Daniells (Ind, Pevensey) said: “I think it’s going to be met with derision actually. I do not think people are going to like it very much at all. I think they are going to see it as yet another paper exercise.”

But Ms Allen argued ‘done was better than perfect’ when it came to the place branding.

She said: “Businesses when they come back want to know there is a clear plan for recovery in Bognor Regis and they want to know there is decisive leadership to deliver that plan. You have an opportunity with this, please embrace it.”

But support was less than forthcoming from the Arun district councillors with only one in favour, five against and two abstentions.

‘DISAPPOINTING OUTCOME’

After the meeting, Ms Allen said it was a ‘disappointing outcome’ for Bognor Regis as it ‘stalls the process of all stakeholders committing to bring this crucial piece of work to point of delivery’ and urged the councillors to reconsider their decision.

She described how place branding was so much more than a tourist campaign, but a strategic approach to regeneration and transformation of places that starts with identifying and communicating clear and consistent messages about Bognor Regis to the people that live, work, study and visit here.

Jason Passingham, chairman of the BID, added: “The people of Bognor Regis have heard plenty of talk about change, and what they really want is to see action.

“Yes, it was a disappointing outcome last night, and our ongoing hope is that all stakeholders with responsibility for the economic development and regeneration of Bognor Regis will ultimately adopt the place branding values, but that won’t stop the BID from progressing positive change where we have the authority and resources to do so.”

Lib Dem Matt Stanley, the only district councillor to vote in favour of adopting the place branding, added: “Hopefully it appears we maybe emerging out of the pandemic in the not to distant future and our town really needs all local stakeholders working together, in the same direction for the best interests of the community.

“We are extremely fortunate to have organisations such as the Bognor Regis BID and the Bognor Regis Regeneration Board working passionately to support our local economy, and placebranding was an ideal opportunity for us all send a clear signal of intent.

“Essentially all that was being proposed was a commitment to work together and to pledge we would communicate positively about our town. I am personally very disappointed the committee did not feel they could come together to support that at this stage.”

TOWN COUNCIL ‘DOES NOT LOSE ANYTHING’

Place branding was also discussed at a Bognor Regis Town Council meeting on Monday night (March 8).

Opinions were generally more favourable, with town councillors agreeing to adopt and implement the place branding core values.

Mr Stanley, who is also a town councillor, described how place branding was just stakeholders making a commitment to positive communication.

His amendment asked for a quarterly report from the regeneration board on place branding, including feedback both positive and negative, and examples of place branding in action.

This was accepted after Mr Brooks withdrew calls for this to go back to the events, promotion and leisure committee for further discussion.

Another amendment, suggesting the place branding only be agreed to on the proviso it is signed off by Arun, was defeated on the Mayor’s casting vote.

Kenton Batley (LDem, Orchard) said: “We do not lose anything as a town council. We can still use our logo, it just gives core values that the whole town will follow rather than everyone doing their own little thing.”

John Erskine (LDem, Pevensey) added: “Our town is crying out for action not a roundabout of committees and no action. We need to be capitalising on what this can help us with in the upcoming couple of years.”

Steve Goodheart (Ind, Hotham) said: “We should make sure we are a party to this so we can be a grown up member of this group and have an equal say so this is developed into a tool that is going to be of major use for Bognor Regis and I truly hope it will turn into that.”

FUTURE OF TOWN CENTRE

At the same regeneration-sub committee meeting last week, councillors received updates from both the BID and Bognor Regis Regeneration Board.

Mr Passingham mentioned the positive feedback to the giant coloured planters in the Queensway, artwork in Norfolk Square, the living wall in Bedford Street and wooden planters in the eastern end of the High Street.

He was asked how many town centre businesses he expected would survive the pandemic.

In his answer, he said some might have already made up their minds to quit premises even before Covid.

While a number of sectors had been badly affected such as pubs and the beauty industry, many have adapted by offering takeaways or click and collect services for the first time.

Mr Passingham added: “The BID will be there supporting them where we can and hopefully from this some people have discovered their business is much stronger than they thought it was by just making a few adaptations and joining partnerships.”

The vacancy rate for the core retail area, covering London Road from Best Brows southwards and High Street, is currently at eight per cent.

Across a broader section of the town centre including the Queensway it is 11 per cent and across the whole BID area the figure is 13.5 per cent.

Ms Allen added: “It’s very difficult to make any predictions as to what is going to happen until the restrictions are lifted.”

Questions were also asked about what the BID would like to see in terms of regeneration and the future of the high street.

Mr Passingham said he viewed regeneration as bringing areas not in use back into use and not just solely about new buildings.

He also felt the days of high streets being purely shops were ‘not feasible anymore’.

He explained that the only way to get people back into high streets was about improving the experience for visitors.

Becky White, from the regeneration board, said in 2019 they had set an objective to focus on town centre regeneration.

She outlined how the town centre benefited from being compact, was easy to get around and had seen recent improvements to the public realm.

One of the actions the board would like to see is a review of the strategic vision for the town centre as the masterplan document was last updated in 2003.

Ms Allen said the BID is working with multiple stakeholders on proposals for the transformation of the town centre, but added: “They are not at a stage yet where they are ready to be discussed in a public forum.”

Raof Daud, chairman of the regeneration board, said they were highlighting the fact that investment had happened quicker in out of town and the fringes of Bognor faster than the centre.

But part of this was due to the challenges with fragmented land ownership.

He added: “We need small individual improvements and developments for regeneration but I think we also need at scale development. It’s not one or the other, we need a combination.”

Late last year Arun asked interested parties to submit regeneration ideas for the town, especially for council-owned sites.

A spokesman confirmed that those who requested to give a presentation did so to councillors in early February.

The next steps will be considered at a full council meeting next week (Wednesday March 17)