Council leader answers town centre questions from Link readers

By Jessica Durston - 22 February 2022

Politics
  • Swindon Council Leader David Renard

    Swindon Council Leader David Renard

This Q&A forms the monthly column from Swindon Council Leader David Renard.

Town centres up and down the country are facing up to the dual challenge of bouncing back from the pandemic and responding to the changing nature of the High Street.

With Swindon Borough Council leading on a £100m programme of investment in the town centre over the next four years, Swindon Link asked members of the public to send in questions about the town centre and its future.

These questions have been put to Council Leader, Cllr David Renard.

 

Who is responsible for helping Swindon town centre adapt to changing times?

It needs the combined effort and investment of landowners, developers, the Government and the council to support the town centre. Economic conditions, investor confidence and Government policy will all play a significant part too in shaping the pace of change. Even before it was accelerated by the pandemic, the popularity of online shopping led to a number of national chain stores disappearing from the high street, including Debenhams and House of Fraser. This means the town centre has to diversify its offer beyond a traditional reliance on retail.

 

What exactly is the council doing to support the town centre?

We are spending more than £100m on a number of projects over the next four years, which we believe will be the trigger point for widespread change within the town centre. Although the council does not own the main retail core of the town centre, we have managed to secure many tens of millions of pounds from the Government, which has enabled us to invest in land and key heritage buildings that we do own.

As well as the £33m being spent on the Fleming Way transport interchange, almost £20m has been obtained to take forward five regeneration schemes, which includes investing in land to bring forward new homes and offices on the next phase of the Kimmerfields regeneration site, next to Zurich’s new office building.

Through the Heritage Action Zone we are also investing in Brunel’s former Carriage Works to create a hub for creative and digital SMEs, while a business case for £5m will soon be submitted to enable us to give the historic Health Hydro a new lease of life. Over the coming months, residents will see these schemes coming forward on the ground.

 

Why doesn’t the council support town centre businesses by reducing business rates and building rents?

It is a common misperception, but local business rates are actually set by the Government rather than the council. Most of the rents in the town centre are controlled by private landlords.

 

One of the biggest bugbears for anyone using the town centre is the high parking charges compared to many out of town shopping outlets or neighbouring towns and cities such as Reading, Cheltenham or Bristol?

We regularly review our parking charges and benchmark them against other places to ensure we are not putting Swindon at a disadvantage compared to other nearby towns and cities. Unfortunately, parking chargesare a vital source of income to the council and helps pay for essential transport projects such as concessionary bus fares and filling potholes.

 

Why is the council spending so much money on improving Fleming Way when there is nothing in the town centre to attract people in?

The plans to rejuvenate Fleming Way will be a game changer for this part of the town centre and should not be seen solely as a scheme to merely replace the ageing bus station. We have secured £25m from the Government through the Future High Streets Fund to deliver a new public transport interchange, but it will also enable new pedestrian and cycle routes to make the centre of town easier to access and move around.

 

There is a need to drive people onto public transport when using the town centre to ease the pressure on the roads. Obviously the new bus interchange will help with this but are there any other plans afoot?

I cannot speak for the bus companies regarding their routes as they make decisions based on passenger demand, but the changes to Fleming Way are designed to make bus services much more attractive to local people.

 

I would like to see more individual shops, with individual frontages, to take away the glass and concrete effect there is today. Perhaps the council/owners could encourage entrepreneurs by offering reduced rents and rates, like they did in the 1970s, to encourage companies to move here.

As mentioned previously, the vast majority of the town centre is owned by private landowners and it is they who set the rents. Local business rates are also set by central Government. Although we cannot directly control what landlords do with their properties we can create the conditions to make it more attractive for investment to take place.

 

Why does Swindon need a new Cultural Quarter?

In order for our town centre to become a place where people come to socialise as well as shop, we need to create new experiences and a reason for them to come into town. The vision for the new theatre and art gallery has been developed with the help of key Swindon cultural organisations and their users and participants including Create Studios, Swindon Dance, HQ Theatres and Prime Theatre. The plans are also supported by the Arts Council. Our initial analysis has also shown that the Cultural Quarter will generate more than £35m of retained local economic activity and create more than 1,300 jobs, not to mention about 850,000 visits a year. It will be a major boost to our town centre economy and something we are committed to delivering for our town.

 

Swindon Link readers can find out more about the various challenges facing the town centre and what the council is doing to bring about improvements by visiting: www.swindon.gov.uk/towncentreregeneration

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