THE future of Tamworth town centre – and all town centres across the country – is a much-debated topic as they strive to adapt to changing times and changing consumer habits.
Tamworth Borough Council has confirmed its commitment to do what it can within its power to invest in and promote the town centre.
Here Cllr Steve Claymore, cabinet member for Regeneration, outlines the huge amount of work and investment taking place and discusses some of the challenges.
“As a council we have a vision and a developing strategy to invest in and promote the town centre. Regenerating the town centre is one of our main priorities and is something all councillors and council staff are passionate about. The challenges facing town centres is a national issue as people’s shopping behaviours, and what they expect from their town centres, changes. Our challenge is to adapt to those changes for the benefit of the local economy, but within the realms of what is actually within our power as a local authority.
“We need not go into the advent of internet shopping and how it has partly killed off high streets; we all know that’s the main cause of the issue. Attracting large companies to the high street is increasingly challenging in a retail market which has seen many of these big name businesses fold in recent years. Think of Woolworths, Block Busters, HMV, Toys are Us and many more.
“What we must focus on is making Tamworth an attractive a prospect as possible for external investors and we work tirelessly to encourage and support regeneration in this area. This includes exploring all the options in the face of those changing retail habits, which could include more housing and more leisure. The truth is we cannot give anyone back the town they knew 30 to 50 years ago. The world moves on, it changes and the town centre must evolve with it.
“Some say that the town centre and Ventura are at war. If that is/was the case then that battle was lost in the 1990s. The truth is we must connect the two better and create a single Tamworth ‘offer’ that suits both sets of businesses.
“Regenerating the town also involves looking at the funds available to us through council budgets as well as maximising and exploiting all opportunities to secure external investment. And to that end, millions of pounds are currently being invested into Tamworth town centre.
“We have secured more than £6million which is currently funding the development of an Enterprise Quarter in the heart of the town, including the creation of the new Tamworth Enterprise Centre for small businesses, a new restaurant and the refurbishment and extension of Tamworth Assembly Rooms theatre. We hope the Enterprise Quarter will become a hub for enterprise and culture, to promote economic development and attract more visitors.
“More than half a million pounds has been secured to create a new interactive and family-friendly gallery at Tamworth Castle devoted to the town’s Anglo-Saxon history and the Staffordshire Hoard.
“We invest more than £100,000 a year in providing high quality outdoor events, free of charge, for local families and visitors to enjoy, and these also attract tens of thousands of people to Tamworth from other areas.
“In addition to this, we are always looking for opportunities to promote the town and its heritage, such as the successful Aethelfest events we organised to mark the 1100thanniversary of the death of Aethelflaed.
“Hundreds of thousands of pounds has been invested in improving gateways to the town centre from Ventura Park and from Tamworth Railway Station and a further phase focusing on Corporation Street and Church Street will be completed in the future.
“We have heard some residents say we should not be spending money on flowers, winning In-Bloom awards every year, but spend it on saving the town centre. But in reality the flowers in and around the town centre are for that very reason, the economic benefit. Making the town centre attractive and floral actually encourages more visitors and users of the town centre.
“We have also recently purchased the Gungate site, with a view to finally unlocking it as a key site for town centre regeneration. But we are already aware that just a new shopping centre is not the answer, retail has moved on in 10 years. It needs to do more and encourage more use of our historic town centre.
“Behind the scenes, Tamworth Borough councillors and members of staff are constantly looking for new initiatives, new funding streams and new events and ideas to promote the town centre, as well as helping new and existing businesses in whatever way we can.
“Contrary to popular belief, Tamworth Borough Council doesn’t set business rates in the town. This is a national tax on non-domestic properties set by the Government. As a local authority we are legally required to collect business rates on behalf of the Government, but only 8% of the income is retained by Tamworth Council.
“It is also a common misconception that we set all the rents in Tamworth town centre. In fact, Tamworth Borough Council only owns 18 commercial units in the town, many of which with subsidised rents. Three of these are vacant and are we are looking at how they can be brought back into use as part of longer-term regeneration.
“We provide lots of support and advisory services to businesses, including help with starting up, finding suitable premises within budget, signposting to funding opportunities and providing start-up grants.
“We also helped support businesses in their quest to create a Business Improvement District in the town. Unfortunately, the BID ballot wasn’t successful, but a dedicated group of town and Ventura Park businesses remain dedicated to working together to raise the profile of the town and we will continue to support them where we can.
“Of course we hear comments that town centre car parking charges are hurting the town centre, yet there is no evidence of this fact in reality as the car parks are used daily. The fact is the ‘offer’ needs to improve. It is worth bearing in mind that the council receives around £800,000 per year from car parking charges, or around 10% of our Nett General Fund budget. This income is so ingrained in the council’s budgets no one knows how to unpick it and scrap the charges, without resulting in massive cuts to services.
“If the argument (that has been made) is that if we give free car parking more businesses will open and thus we get additional business rates, then we need to remember that again there is no evidence of this fact and that we would need nearly 300 new shops to open instantly to raise the lost income as we only keep around 8% of business rates.
“Tamworth has so much going for it, despite the national trend of declining town centres, including a rich heritage, a stunning castle and beautiful parks. We have some great businesses in the town centre and they deserve to be celebrated, promoted and used by the residents of Tamworth.
“If we all started appreciating the positives, using the town centre where we can, and working together to come up with fresh ideas and initiatives, then everyone will benefit.
“But the town centre must evolve, change in some ways to meet the needs and the shopping habits of the 21stcentury. Take a look at the new brewery on Market Street, this is the kind of enhancement the town needs, newer fresher offers to compliment the current businesses and encourage new visitors. The council has offered masses of support and advice to this fabulous new venture. This is the thinking that is needed.
“As said above, there is a lot we do to aid the vibrancy of the town centre, but there is also a lot we cannot control as we do not own much of the town centre. But no matter how hard we push or how much money we could throw at it, the truth is that the old town centre is not coming back, so let’s work together and make the one we have the best it possibly can be.”