Agenda item

Cheltenham Economic Recovery Task Force

Diane Savory, Chair of the Task Force and Tracey Crews, Director of Planning, Place & Growth


Objective:Consider the business plan (above) and get broader perspective from the Chair, Diane Savory


The Chairman welcomed Diane Savory, Chair of the Cheltenham Economic Recovery Task Force and Tracey Crews, the Director of Planning, Place & Growth.  He reminded members that this was an opportunity to better understand the priorities and challenges for the task force.  He reminded members that Diane was attending in her role as Chair of the Task Force and not as the Chair of the Local Enterprise Partnership.  


Diane and Tracey talked through a PowerPoint presentation (Appendix 1). 


Diane outlined her business background and accomplishments and some of the roles she holds at a local and national level.  She had been pleased to have been given the opportunity to share some of her experience and passion for Cheltenham, as Chair of the Task Force and whilst there were undoubtedly challenges ahead, she felt it was important to focus on dealing with these challenges.  The high street had been undergoing a slow decline, and though many imagined that this would take a few more years, Covid had exacerbated and accelerated the issue.  The mantra was ‘Be Bold.  Be Swift.  Be Brave.’ and this was indeed what we needed to be in the coming months and years.  Empty units, of which there were more each day, presented an opportunity to repurpose the high street, to reimagine Cheltenham, and embrace important topics such as green growth and carbon net zero.  Through her strategic engagement on groups such as the BEIS Retail Sector Council, the Task Force has a potential route into innovative projects such as green streets.  The Task Force looked to lead recovery but would be doing this in partnership, building on the success of the Development Task Force and testing new models.  At a local level, the Task Force would be providing check and challenge to CBC and Diane would be promoting what we were doing in Cheltenham, at a national level, at every opportunity.  She talked through those that were involved in the Task Force, all of whom were providing their time and efforts for free, with support from their public sector colleagues. 


Tracey Crews outlined the Task Force business plan, which was informed by a business survey across the SME sector.  This helped provide a snapshot of issues at September 2020.  There was a range of positives and negatives and unsurprisingly raised a number of immediate issues around operating within Covid guidelines, as well as some important transitions for businesses in a digital context.  There was quite a broad agenda in terms of what needed to be addressed and in acknowledgement that the Task Force couldn’t do it alone, partnership working is therefore key The first monitoring report had been circulated to members in advance of the meeting and this allowed the Task Force to check performance against the business plan, as well assessing whether any changes were required.  The workload was heavy and although the Task Force was meeting on a 6 weekly cycle, it was soon apparent that more focus was required on some topics and four sub-groups were duly formed. 


·         Town centre Vision - Tracey felt strongly that Covid this was not the death of the high street but also, that Cheltenham should not simply take a national blueprint and instead look at what was important at a local level.  She advised that the Task Force was developing a positive narrative that would aim to expel the perception that a town centre was defined only for retail, as this was simply not true.  The task force were looking at zones of the town centre and undertake a deep dive of each, so that they could understand every zone and Bernice Thompson representing West end partnership was supporting that work for the Lower High Street area.   


·         Counter Culture - many urban areas were seeing the number of vacant units increase and Cheltenham was running higher than the national average for the South West, at over 13%, but given the other urban areas within that region, she did not feel this should be surprising; but equally, neither was it something we could just hope would improve.  Consideration was being given to a pilot, getting access to a vacant unit and bringing together culture community, commercial and communities and testing how transferrable it might be in other units across the town centre. 


·         Skills - GFirst LEP are really important as a partner and the question for the Task Force was, how could they add value.  The inception meeting for this sub-group would be happening soon, where a work programme would be drafted and agreed. 


·         Hospitality - In recognition that the hospitality sector had been one of the hardest hit as a result of Covid, this sub-group would also be developing a specific work programme for this.


Before moving to questions, she took the opportunity to remind members that the ‘moving to Cheltenham’ platform had been launched and that all task Force related information would be shared on this website


She advised the committee that one project that the task force were trying to get off the ground was the possible temporary closure of Regent Street, which would allow hospitality to spill out into the street.  A letter had been received from Government which urged planning authorities to look at how they could cut red tape, as part of the lifting of Covid restrictions, to enable people to access additional space and this could include a variety of uses, including markets and food, etc. 


Some members had submitted questions in advance and these along with the responses from Diane, were attached at Appendix 2. Diane and Tracey then gave responses to questions from members and the Chair used his discretion to allow non-O&S members to ask questions also.   


Of the four sub-groups, there was no mention of transport into and out of Cheltenham, so how would this marry into what was being done?  Tracey reiterated that the GCC Cabinet Member for transport was supporting the Task Force.  Diane highlighted that the challenge for the task force in terms of being able to take a lead on transport, was that it had a task and finish period of 18 months, so whilst transport was a conversation that ran through many priorities, there was no specific priority; so the group were leaning on existing conversations and key stakeholders. 


On counter culture, what kind of activities were the task group looking to have, alternative hospitality, young people showcase, new business approach or social enterprise?  Diane explained that counter culture had to flexible and as such, could include a number of different things, it was absolutely not the case that one size would fit all.  Tracey highlighted Gloucestershire Start & Grow initiative, which mentored entrepreneurs and counter culture could potentially provide a central space for them to test their business idea.  It had to be said that the town centre at 5.30pm in the evening, was not an exciting place to be and therefore it needed to include options which could cross over from day and night and this would require a level of innovation.  The Minster Project was an exciting example of this and would be out of the ground but the end of the year. 


Similarly to this incarnation, the Development Task Force had a good strategy, but it also had sharp tactical ability to talk to developers and rail companies, etc, on particular sites and move them forward, which sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t; but would this task force have the same light-footed tactical approach?  A standing agenda item for the task force was ‘catalyst sites’ and developers were invited along at an early stage to provide check and challenge.  The Quadrangle site was cited a great example of the enabling and tactical abilities of the task force.     


In the past, Cheltenham was sold as a top shopping destination, but if retail wasn’t to be the main attraction of the town centre in the future, what would be, food, entertainment, education, green space; what would draw people and businesses to Cheltenham?  Retail was not dead, but the way people shopped was changing, even before Covid.  Consumers, having already found what they wanted online, wanted to go into store for an experience and this was the challenge for retailers; one that national retailors struggled to meet given their relatively fixed business models.  Interestingly, the ‘shop local’ movement had seen places like Bath Road and Coronation Square do quite well throughout Covid and whilst retailers would need to adopt an enhanced digital presence, there would still be a place for bricks and mortar.  It was suggested that this might be the somewhat of a cleansing exercise, which would see a reinvented, more eclectic high street in Cheltenham.  The Lower High Street had also benefitted from the pandemic because of the variety of takeaway food outlets, but the opportunity now is can we change the way in which this area was viewed.   It is a vibrant part of the town centre


Cavendish House was a much loved, iconic, town centre building; how would the task force approach this issue?  Interestingly, Diane said, Cavendish House was a discussion item at an upcoming meeting and she was sure that something impressive could be done there over a period of time. 


There was no mention of sporting hospitality and there really should be engagement with not only the football club, but also the racecourse, who bought a lot to the town.  Diane admitted that this was not something that had been considered, but completely agreed that it should be added to the work of the hospitality sub group.


There was no mention of accessibility, not just for those with physical disabilities, but also for those with sensory disabilities, as there was often conflict between the two.  Another member suggested that Dave Evans from Cheshire Homes could be a useful resource for the task force in terms of knowledge around accessibility.  Diane also flagged digital deprivation which was high on her list of priorities, an issue which Covid had brought to the fore. 


A member stressed the importance of retail to the town centre, suggesting that an attractive and successful town centre could not rely on cafes and entertainment alone, it needed shops.


A number of members welcomed the varied skills and experience of those on the task force and commended the innovative and exciting business plan. 


The Chairman thanked Diane and Tracey for what he felt had been an informative and interesting discussion and looked forward to future updates. 

Supporting documents: