Town Centre Projects & Programmes
Presentation by Tracey Crews, Director of Planning and Jackie Jobes, Townscape Manager
Objective: To consider the changing demands on High Street related schemes and the approach for co-ordinating initiatives and understanding how they fit into the wider objectives for the High Street.
Tracey Crews (Director of Planning) gave a strategic oversight of what was happening in the Town Centre, focusing on how plans agreed by the council fit together. These included the past activities of the Cheltenham Development Task Force, which focused on town centre regeneration including the Brewery, Transport Plan, North Place and the public realm. The Place Vision worked alongside this, articulating the key areas of interest as business, culture and community working together. Connecting Cheltenham was a further plan for transport in the town, with a focus on tackling the climate emergency and increasing connectivity in the town centre. In the area of public realm project delivery, over £1m had been invested so far by the council, GCC and the European Regional Development Fund, with a further estimated £1.4m coming in the next year.
The pandemic had had a significant impact on the town centre in many ways, most notably through job losses, furlough, social distancing, deprivation and re-skilling. She not acknowledged that not all these issues were new (for example, physical retailers going online-only and leaving the High Street) but Covid had caused them to accelerate. It was important to look at possible opportunities arising from the crisis, such as the rise in cyber and tech, and stressed the need to build on the town’s strengths.
She added that the Development Task Force had been replaced by the Economic Recovery Task Force (CERTF). Key principles included partnerships, engagement, leadership and collaboration, and many aspects of the council’s work could contribute to this. The CERTF could help drive the town’s economic recovery through swift and brave interventions in response to challenges, while the Welcome Back Funding provided investment of over £200,000. Inward investment would also be achieved by promoting Cheltenham as ‘open for business’, alongside partnership working and place management. She reassured members that environmental and sustainability concerns would be central to this, particularly in terms of understanding the human impact on the town centre and how residents and visitors moved around the town, but emphasised that this needed the support and delivery by GCC as the Highways authority.
Jackie Jobes (Townscape Manager) added that reimagining the town centre would be a core tenet of the post-Covid economic recovery, and that the decline of high streets nationwide was well-documented long before Covid hit. The most immediate aspects of reimagining Cheltenham’s town centre were to progress the High Street paving works which had been postponed due to the pandemic, and to restart the Cambray Place development in spring 2022. They also needed to address the temporary street furniture on Boots Corner and deliver the Minster Gardens. She noted that the E-scooter trials had been extended until March 2022.
She emphasised that the key question was what the Town Centre had to offer, and how it could compete with other areas. They needed to encourage a wide variety of uses and look at whether the planning system encourages and restricts innovation. Cheltenham’s town centre was relatively large, and work had been undertaken with the Economic Recovery Task Force to break it down into five zones based on their characteristics: Minster Quarter, Regency Quarter, Montpellier Quarter, Central Quarter and the Lower High Street.
It was worth looking closely at frameworks like the ‘15 minute city’, in which everyone living in the town was able to access essential urban services within a 15 minute walk or bike. This would require spatial redistribution of land uses and activities but could contribute hugely to the council’s climate goals.
The Director of Planning added that developments like Golden Valley should have a borough-wide impact, rather than being limited to West Cheltenham. The question was how to ensure a ripple effect across the town in terms of culture, retail, jobs and community. The town centre needed to be an attractive opportunity for businesses and provide a catalyst for new developments, while boosting the delivery of sustainable homes and infrastructure together with addressing the climate change emergency.
She suggested that there was work to be done to bring coherence to the range of projects and initiatives taking place in Cheltenham, and to set them in the context of the council’s overarching priorities. It was important to define the purpose and priority of projects, as well as the town centre itself and its network of inter-relationships. Frameworks like the Place Vision had to be linked throughout, and key target areas should be identified. Collaborative working was essential, in particular with the county council and its Highways tea. The Citizen Space consultation platform, soon to be implemented, would enable more effective public consultation.
One member noted that the change in retail environment was a national and possibly global issue, which had been sped up by the pandemic but was already in motion before. Could the council work with towns and cities across the country who were facing the same problem, and not just locally? The Director of Planning responded that it was vital to learn from other areas wherever possible. The council had commissioned a year-long program with Maybe to support companies struggling to adapt to online engagement with their business, which was especially key during the early months of the pandemic as requirements for businesses changed so rapidly. They continued to work closely with the BID, and the best possible practice was always sought through collaboration and conversation.
One member asked whether it was likely that more housing would appear in the town centre as retail dropped off. The Director of Planning responded that in order to keep the principle of community at the heart of the town centre and High Street, it meant looking at things that were not just retail and business. The High Street was not dead, but it was always important to look at alternative uses.
One member was concerned that the town centre would be the only focus, and asked for further detail on planned linkages with other parts of the town. The Townscape Manager agreed that the town centre could not sustain the town on its own, so it was important to look outwards at smaller communities outside the centre. This was fundamental to the 15 minute city concept.
One member asked about the upkeep and maintenance of what the council already has. The Townscape Manager responded that the upkeep of roads and pavements was a county council area, but noted that strong relationships were being built with GCC to ensure an effective partnership and ensure any maintenance issues were not long lasting.
One member asked about the potential for conflict between the needs of residents and the night-time economy, and the need for consultation regarding things like the 15 minute city idea. The Townscape Manager responded that they were working closely with councillors on this, particularly with regard to the Connecting Cheltenham plan. Projects like the Arle Court roundabout works were all about increasing capacity, while plans were in motion for a significant transport hub project which would hopefully begin in January. She emphasised that you could fit far more bikes and pedestrians in the town centre than cars, and the health benefits were also huge. The member agreed, but noted that this might be viewed differently by visitors and those living on the outskirts. They asked whether the views of residents in the town centre would be just as important as those from business. The Director of Planning agreed and acknowledged the need to take into account local concerns as well as the broader strategic approach. The key question was how to capture visitors coming in all directions, and give them options to get into the town centre in an easy and sustainable way.
Members praised the detailed presentation, and one member suggested it ought to be delivered to all members at some point in the future. The Director of Planning was happy to lead a member seminar on the topic, which Democratic Services would organise.