Saturday, 28 April 2012

Improvements to the retail & leisure offer in Eastbourne

When I took part in the recent debate at the Planning Committee meeting where the Harbour Retail Park plans were considered and spoke in favour of approving this application, without imposing damaging restrictions I did so, not because I favoured the Harbour over the Town Centre (even though I am very proud to represent Sovereign Ward) but because I am ambitious for all of Eastbourne and genuinely believe that the town and its people not only deserve both sets of improvements but that the combined offer of both will result in even more people choosing to visit Eastbourne and spend their money here.

What was witnessed before and during the planning committee meeting in terms of speaking against the Harbour Retail Park application by the backers of the Town Centre scheme is perhaps understandable given the challenging economic climate we look set to retain for at least the next two years, but it should not be allowed to create long lasting damaging divisions that risk depriving Eastbourne of its full potential. I suspect it is for that reason alone that politicians including myself have declined to comment since the Planning Committee meeting.

However I have been moved to speak out following local media coverage of the story which in my opinion, risks dividing the town un-necessarily by inviting people to join Team Arndale or Team Crumbles and dwelling for far too long on the fevered comments of a tiny minority who if one studies the online topics on a regular basis, often enjoy a rant on a host of stories in a fairly negative manner. I would challenge our local media to rise above these arguments and start looking in detail at the many other issues and provoking debate on those.

These include; 1) how we can ensure the proposed extended Arndale Centre links better with the other retail areas of the Town Centre, namely Little Chelsea, the Enterprise Centre, Terminus Road & Seaside/Langney Road etc which are predominantly occupied by some fantastic independent specialists that could and should be capable of competing with The Lanes in Brighton and The Pantiles in Tunbridge Wells. 2) how we can access the Portas grants to help regenerate the many empty shops in the streets throughout the Town Centre. 3) how we remove diesel alley without confusing the public transport offer. 4) how we make better use of our existing Town Centre car parking spaces in under used multi-stories. 5) how we pay respect to our heritage in terms of building design without failing to allow things to evolve. 6) how we link all of the fantastic reasons to visit Eastbourne together so that more people choose to spend their money in our town. 7) how we get the many passionate individuals and groups within Eastbourne to work together to promote what we have rather than waste time and energy with negative and un-productive comment.

Today local interest group ‘Eastbourne Can’ are trialling their ‘take a tenner’ event where people are encouraged to go and spend £10 (or more if they wish) in Little Chelsea’s independent shops. Some of the retailers are getting into the spirit with special offers to encourage customers to try their products. It is my belief that more ideas like this coupled with a wider focus on the many unique selling points that Eastbourne offers like our Town Centre, Cultural Offer, magnificent seafront and downland and of course the wonderful Harbour & retail park which to date remains our best kept secret, that will lead to us generating real growth and ensuring that visitors choose Eastbourne over our competition for shopping and leisure in the future so let’s all work together in this aim in future!

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Clouds looming over The Bandstand - where does this leave asset management?

You may have read my previous blog entry about the failure of the Lib-Dem run Eastbourne Council's asset management program. This was exposed during a new member training session last September when it became clear that clear cabinet instructions given by the previous Conservative administration prior to the 2007 local elections had not been acted upon. Perhaps of even more concern was that the current Lib-Dem administration then looked at the issue again in 2008 but did nothing about it.

I found this staggering given that shortly after this, lumps of concrete began falling off the Congress Theatre which has since been shrowded in unsightly scaffolding and faded advertising hoarding. When I challenged the Lib-Dems at the October Cabinet meeting they failed to provide an acceptable response but claimed they felt they had more important things to concentrate on.

Hot on the heels of this embarrassing saga, we witnessed the shameful episode that saw the council pay the tennants of the Wish Tower Restaurant over £130,000 to get out, only to find that the once loved seafront attraction had been trashed before the tennants were paid to go and the building had fallen in to such disrepair that the first strong winds of the winter lifted part of the roof up allowing wet weather into the building.

After highlighting this issue, I decided to put politics to one side and work with the administration on the newly formed Strategic Property Board to try and sort the mess out in the interests of the residents of Eastbourne. Work started at the end of last year and a comprehensive list of assets and property was drawn up which ranges from small unadopted portions of land, public toilets and neighbourhood play areas to community centres, sports centres, theatres, tourist attractions and even tennant farms on our surrounding downland.

Very soon the scale of the challenge became clear and as the first property inspections took place, lots of essential repairs started to be identified with many more that would clearly need planning being added to the list. I have already made my views clear on how this process is being handled and stated quite clearly that I think more resource should be put into getting the inspections completed sooner so that we can give taxpayers and staff confidence that they are safe in council property. In addition to these comments, I also contributed to the first fully costed opposition alternative budget in many years and we made provision in this budget to double to pace of inspections. You may not be surprised to hear that the Lib-Dems used their small majority on the council to veto these plans.

Now we have the bizarre situation where emergency repairs required at The Bandstand have lead to yet another key attraction being boarded up and planned events moved to alternative venues. This is bizarre because it was The Bandstand and some underpinning repairs which were highlighted in 2006 which lead to the previous Conservative administration to demand a proper asset management strategy be put together. We believed this to be essential back then, not just to ensure people are safe on council property but also because the more we know about our assets, the better we can utilise them, either by improving them so they provide better services and benefits to residents or disposing of some if they can no longer provide value for money for residents.

I have serious concerns about how we move forward. It has become clear that the Lib-Dems will stop at nothing to achieve their aims. We now know that despite a report to the October 2011 Cabinet Meeting in which were lead to believe that the only option for the Wish Tower Restaurant was demolition, they never intended to consider repairs and further use until a partner could be found to carry out a more ambitious redevelopment and showing a shameful disregard to the family that gifted the restaurant to the town as a tribute to residents who lost their lives during World War Two.

Now we have a situation where serious problems have been identified at The Bandstand and although Councillors have received information from hard working officers within the Events Team about plans being made to move the Events Program to alternative venues, either all Councillors on the Strategic Property Board are being kept in the dark or my willingness to work with my oponents for the greater good is not being shown the respect it deserves as I have recieved no official confirmation of just what repairs are needed, how much this will cost or when we can expect to be able to use The Bandstand again and have had to read about it in the local newspaper for two weeks running.

I will of course be raising my concerns at the next Strategic Property Board meeting scheduled to take place this coming Wednesday afternoon and will decide then what action I should take next.

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.