Monday, 9 April 2012
Development in Eastbourne
I have been watching the public debate in the local press about Town Centre redevelopment -v- Sovereign Harbour Retail Park regeneration with great interest and although Councillors have not been widely quoted on the subject thus far does not mean one should assume our silence means that we either do not care passionately or are in some way in cahoots with Council officers or developers. Some members will of course be voting on the Harbour application when it comes before the Planning Committee this month and must maintain a silence so as not to jeopardise their vote. I however am not on the Planning Committee and whilst I have kept my thoughts out of the press to date, preferring instead to do all I can to influence things from within the Council as my constituents elected me to do, I am happy to make my views known now and intend to speak to the application at Planning Committee.
Unlike some, I don't view either the Town Centre or Harbour applications with more importance than the other - they are both vitally important to my constituents in Sovereign Ward and the wider community throughout the Borough of Eastbourne and I will set out my reasoning here:
Town Centre Redevelopment
Eastbourne's Town Centre has many charming features not least in terms of some of the architecture (magnificent Town Hall sited within the Little Chelsea specialist retail area, wonderful Victorian Railway Station with its clock tower and canopy which sits proudly at the end of Terminus Road which sweeps up to the amazing seafront) but in retail terms as the years have gone by it has become progressively less competitive with many of our town's people choosing to leave Eastbourne for major shopping trips for Brighton's Churchill Square & Lanes, Tunbridge Wells' Royal Victoria Place & Pantiles or the major out of town destinations like Bluewater and Lakeside. For this reason our Town Centre retail offer has to improve to prevent the slide away further and in order to this the Arndale Centre must have new larger retail units added to it to enable Eastbourne to attract more big store names to widen the choice.
When I was first on the Council between 2002 and 2007, a huge scale redevelopment of the Town Centre was planned but this fell by the wayside when the recession started to bite and the economy went in to the serious down turn that we are struggling to recover from now. More recently the Arndale's owners have come back with a more achieveable but no less necessary plan which will see the existing centre extended from the current Next store in a westerly direction, taking in some smaller shops in the existing diesel alley section of Terminus Road and the Gildredge Pub, creating a new gateway to our Town Centre to greet passengers as they leave the Railway Station from the East.
Many people have questionned why this is necessary given the record numbers of empty shops that can be found both within and outside the Arndale Centre. I would say that by the time the redevelopment is complete (at the earliest within 2-3 years) we must all surely hope that our economic growth will be easier to see and to trust and believe in and by then the number of available units will be decreasing fast as the improved retail offer starts to attract many more large and small retailers.
However I remain to be convinced that enough work is being done in other key areas. I think that members and residents need more reassurance that shoppers will be as aware of the Little Chelsea & Terminus Road & Cornfield Road areas as shoppers in Brighton are of The Lanes and in Tunbridge Wells of the Pantiles and that will require improved signage and publicity so that they do not become forgotten. We also need to be aware of the trend which sees it more convenient for many of us to use out of town Retail Parks for regular and essential purchases because of the longer opening hours and ability to park outside the doors in many cases. I heard recently Justin King (Sainsburys Chief Executive) answering critics accusations that big groups like his had killed Town Centres. He claims only to have given shoppers what they want and said that Town Centres need to adapt to customer demands by adding more leisure destinations, residential development and even educational or community facilities in the heart of Town Centres to rebuild communities. I think he makes a valuable contribution here and I am keen to see that we are likely to be able to ensure that the whole of our Town Centre enjoys a lively and vibrant future, not just the Arndale Centre.
One final area that concerns me greatly is in the area of design. The artists impressions show the magnificent Railway Station Clock Tower with hideous jagged white iceberg like slabs rising up from the new entrance to the extended Arndale Centre. I raised this with officers recently and was told that the design had been in front of design panels and that they wanted a contemporary feel. We have seen this before over the years with South Cliff Tower, The Congress Theatre, new Towner Art Gallery and most recently the Birley Centre at Eastbourne College. Whilst I would not dare to question the importance of the content of many of these structures, their design has divided opinion and goes totally against the charm of many of Eastbourne's finest buildings and it is in my opinion critically important that we gain a stronger grip on what kind of development we allow. After all if our town's visual appearance evolves respectfully and in keeping with it's past, our Town Centre will not just be another characterless blob of shops and this will help set us apart from the rest.
Sovereign Harbour Retail Park Regeneration
The former Crumbles Retail Park as it was known when it opened some 20 years ago has like our Town Centre started to show signs of its age and its offer is very different to the Town Centre. For the many visitors to Eastbourne it provides yet another reason to come to our town with so many coming for a big store, being amazed at what the Harbour has to offer with its long traffic free walks, waterside restaurants and entrance to the string of pearls that could be our seafront.
But it is far more than just a retail park and provides a community destination for residents of Sovereign Harbour and the surrounding areas. Essential food and clothing shopping, opticians, chemists and the multiple screen cinema are all much appreciated by my constituents but the proposed regeneration of this will see several improvements to this and the arrival of the much talked about and long awaited Sovereign Harbour Bus Gate. The bus gate would transform the public transport offer to many of my constituents, massively simplifying the service by allowing the North & South Harbours to be served by one bus service, doubling the frequency of the service to Eastbourne Town Centre and Railway Station and safeguarding a service which due to its fragmented layout has been under threat of its very existence in previous years.
Having lived amongst my constituents since shortly after I was first elected to serve them and having lived in Eastbourne all of my life, I am firmly of the opinion that unlike some who fear that improvements to the Harbour Retail Park will threaten the Town Centre, it will not. My family use both the Harbour Retail Park and Town Centre regularly and this is the case with many of my constituents too. There are also examples of retailers who trade successfully in both locations, look at Next and Boots, who would bet against at least one of them taking even larger stores in the new Arndale Centre and I bet you won't find them closing their successful stores in the Harbour.
I will therefore be telling members of the Planning Committee that it will be down to them to ensure that this application is approved without restrictive conditions that seem set to threaten the viability of this much needed investment in our town and my constituents community. Sovereign Harbour is a big and important part of the Borough of Eastbourne, the fact that together we have two large firms prepared to invest heavily in our town, bringing work to local tradesmen and builders and hundreds of additional jobs to our town should be welcomed with open arms and encouraged enthusiastically for the many benefits they will bring us all.