Town Centre

This section sets out how the Society thinks the town centre should be managed.  It forms part of a submission, with the Chamber of Commerce, made to the Council on Open Spaces.

At first glance all seems well in the Welwyn Garden City town centre.  The gardens are well maintained and these take such a prominent profile in Howardsgate that they tend to have an overriding impact on many casual visitors.  However, a closer examination of the town centre reveals the following:

  • Damaged pavements
  • Repairs to street furniture that have not been done for years
  • Repairs to the public realm where inconsistent materials have been used
  • Inconsistent designs and co-ordination of street furniture
  • Increasing street furniture clutter
  • Inadequate enforcement of advertising and planning legislation
  • Poorly finished shop fronts
  • Badly maintained shop fronts
  • Unsuitable repairs to the fascias of buildings
  • Peeling paintwork, particularly on upper floors
  • Broken windows on some upper floors
  • Advertising that is illegally erected
  • Shop front colours that are an affront to the design of the place
  • Shop front designs that sit badly with the designs of their buildings

Both the Society and the Chamber think there is a malaise about the town centre which, unless it addressed now, will surely result in its degradation to just another  nondescript and boring shopping area, albeit possibly with a nice garden and, hopefully, some trees: currently, it is beginning to reflect a lack of attention and civic pride.

What is the Borough seeking to achieve overall in Welwyn Garden City town centre?

This is the key question: just what is the Borough seeking to achieve with this strategic vision?

We suggest that the objective of any vision should be to build an action plan to which all stakeholders can subscribe and which, over time, will result in showing the town centre as being distinctly different from other town centres: thereby attracting a greater footfall to the place.

We think the town centre is already uniquely placed to make this possible as it is situated in a conservation area within a garden city.

We also think it appropriate to market the place properly.

We think this all needs to be taken a stage further.

Too often it seems that an issue is seen as a planning issue rather than in terms of “What are we trying to do around here?”  By looking at each issue in planning terms only, the bigger picture is being lost.  We suggest the seeds for a better vision can be found in the Conservation Review where it states, for example, that too many shop front signs in the town centre are out of keeping with the design and are not subordinate to the architecture.  We think that this simple phrase should guide future strategy on shop fronts but overall, the Conservation Review itself provides a vision of what the town should be aiming at.  The Council should act on it.

Finally, we see the purpose of any vision is to ensure that the town centre is “a nicer place to hang about in”; an expression used to promote the British Retail Consortium’s paper entitled 21st Century High Streets published in July of this year.  This paper is sound reading for what has to be done and also gives examples of what has been achieved in other Boroughs. It can be download here: 21st Century High Streets

Our vision for Welwyn Garden City’s town centre

The town centre is a conservation area because the place is special in architectural and urban design terms.  The Borough should major on this as the town’s principal means of differentiating itself from the mass of competing town centres.  Currently, it does not appear to have the confidence to do so.  This means taking the lead to ensure the town centre reflects what an agreed vision would be.  However, it is not down to the Borough alone to make a difference.  It requires all stakeholders, including landlords and traders, to agree the way forward and then to do their bit as well.

This will result in a significantly different, and perceived to be different, place from other town centres – that has to be the draw to pull in more people from, as it were, “far and wide” to use the expression used in the Borough’s own draft paper.

Our view is that by consulting with traders, landlords and all other stakeholders, a consensus will be rapidly found to the proposed way forward which is being advocated.  A very material improvement to the already good atmosphere within the town centre will follow – we can push the town centre to be what it really can be: a model of excellence.

Finally, we do not think that these proposals will cost significant amounts of money, rather effort and consistent application.  Largely, it is money that is spent already or has to be committed anyway but what our approach calls for is for the town to get its act together…REALLY WELL.  After all, the town is very well placed in terms of its location and it is already identified as being something special by being one of only a handful of new towns with a town centre as a conservation area.  Hopefully, if the stakeholders can agree a way forward, the Borough will feel able to act with enthusiasm.

Actions by Borough and County

In this section we do not differentiate between County and Borough responsibilities as they need to be undertaken with a clear understanding by both and with the approval of both.  So we are suggesting that they jointly agree that these things should be done.

  1. Nothing should be done in the town centre by the County Council unless they firstly notify the Borough of what they intend.  Too often the county contractor doing the work does not seem to be aware that large parts of the town are within a conservation area and that this area does not lend itself to county wide solutions.
  2. Thought needs to be given to using pavement designs for enhancing the place as is suggested in the Conservation Review in S.84.  The specification for pavements needs to be revised so that the continual problem of broken pavements can be resolved.  This means that where pavements are driven on by lorries (often by the Borough’s own contractors) then they are of a standard that will not break.

 

  1. The driving over pavements requires coherent and effective action by the Borough’s own parking contractors to enforce the law fully, including when it is broken by cash in transit trucks.  If not, then those pavements they drive over have to be properly reinforced as well.  Cash in transit contractors who work for banks and other bodies need to be reminded that the town was designed from the outset with rear delivery access – which are mostly still available today – but where security can be reinforced with CCTV, if necessary.  The banks are still able to afford this!

 

 

  1. The specification for pavements, street furniture and lighting needs to be re-agreed with all stakeholders for the entire town centre and then properly applied.

 

  1. Repairs to damage to the public realm take too long to be repaired.  This means that damage is often left for months, even years (yes, years) before any repairs actually begin.  It leaves a poor impression on visitors and people therefore wonder if anyone actually cares.  Examples of what we mean are to be found in Appendix 1.  So we suggest that it is in everyone’s interest to find some faster track for town centre repairs to be implemented.

 

 

  1. A full appraisal of the street furniture needs to be undertaken with a view to removing street clutter.  This is particularly important as we understand there is some initiative on signage now being considered by the Borough.  This should not proceed until it is fully co-ordinated within this wider strategy for the town centre.

Action by the Borough

  1. The Borough needs to take Article Four directions to enforce both shop front designs and their colour in the town centre.  This should be accompanied by a shop front design guide properly drawn up with expert advice as well as stakeholders.  It is remarkable that such a design guide has not been put in place before as it is commonplace amongst those town centres that do have conservation areas.  Until this is done the entire town centre will remain a conservation area in name only as it cannot otherwise be enforced.  This, for example, explains why the colour of the pub in Parkway has come about and why the planning appeal for the sign above Halfords was allowed.

 

  1. Effective action needs to be taken to remove advertising and any unauthorised signs from upper floors of buildings or indeed, any level. (eg, the telephone booth at the top of Howardsgate).  The obvious reason for this is that advertisement signs detract from the architecture but, more importantly, the lack of advertising is perhaps the single most important differentiator from the bulk of the UK’s high streets.  It makes for an enormous difference in impact as a visit to any other town centre in a conservation area will demonstrate.  Traders need to have this approach explained to them as it requires, as it were, a degree of self sacrifice in the furtherance of a bigger objective – and they stand to be the biggest beneficiaries.

Action by traders

  1. There are some shop fronts that are dirty and poorly maintained. They need to be addressed.
  2. Equally there are some shop fronts where traders have allowed their shop front contractors to leave the job improperly finished  These need to be corrected and, where appropriate, the pavements properly reinstated.
  3. There are many repairs to premises which have been done improperly.  These need to be redone using experienced personnel.  The Council could usefully co-ordinate some activity here.
  4. Where signs have been removed from fascias there are areas where the old wiring has not been removed or the stonework improperly repaired  These repairs need to be completed or redone.
  5. Many traders use “A boards” to draw attention to their shops.  Whilst the purist would argue that perhaps the place would be tidier without any A boards at all, we think there is a place for them.  However, it would help the overall look of the place for a standard Welwyn Garden City A board to be adopted by traders that would carry some Welwyn Garden City theme but still enable traders to make their unique pitch to passers by.  This would enhance the quality of the pavement look as well.

Action by landlords/traders

  1. There are some upper floors with broken windows, peeling paint or damaged brickwork or fascias that need to be addressed

 

The night economy

From time to time, the Borough has indicated that it wants to see a better night time economy.  We do not think this is likely to happen if the current approach and policies continue to be followed.  However, we do think if the alternative approach that we are setting out in this paper is pursued, and then there is a much better chance of attracting the likes of Wagamama, Gourmet Burger Kitchen, Café Rouge, J. D.  Wetherspoon, or Loch Fyne.  Better management of the town centre, its differentiation and effective promotion will. increase footfall:  that will attract these types of traders.

Promotion

Currently promotion is largely by “events”.

Current events in terms of traders offering “continental shopping” should of course continue as they do seem to attract greater footfall to the place.

Signage in the town is not so good and there is simply too much.  It is essential that any review does not simply add to street clutter and that the signage is agreed with stakeholders before it is finalised.  In particular, we feel that there is inadequate signage and directions for those arriving by train.  There is a lack of good town plans in the town centre for casual visitors.

The poster booths in Howardsgate should be revamped.  The Society is seeking to get this done but the ownership issue has bedevilled progress. Currently (October 2013) there are grounds for optimism that real progress is taking place, sufficient to enable the Society to initiate a National Lottery bid for funds to do the poster booths up.

It is unclear to what extent the town is promoted in areas outside the Borough.  Borough press releases should be aimed at attracting people from further afield to Welwyn Garden City.

Consideration needs to be given to promoting the town with First Capital Connect as we feel that an opportunity is being lost in promoting a day out here while shopping – the idea being to prolong the visit and encompass a meal.

Consideration needs to be given to properly surveying whether a “farmers’ market” should take place in the town on a regular basis.  There is anecdotal evidence that residents are going to markets in both St Albans and Wheathampstead and neither is in the interest of the Borough or traders in the town.

 

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