This months Transition Tuesday Talk was themed on Letchworth achieving a resilient town centre. In December last year Transition Town Letchworth published a report exploring how the town centre could develop. At the meeting the ideas in this report were considered alongside findings from a recently published LDC report on high street health and some local data that LDC had provided in a study commissioned by Letchworth Heritage Foundation. We had an interactive evening where we considered the trends in retail and leisure services both nationally and locally. We identified existing attractors in our town centre and ideas for the future town centre.
What follows is a summary of discussion points from the evening:
- The break out groups at the end focused less on development of the retail offer and more on the development of leisure options. The financial viability of some leisure offerings was raised but having a Heritage Foundation who can re-invest in the town was identified as strength that could help to develop leisure facilities that are available for all to enjoy.
- A future which focuses more on encouraging unique shops rather than enticing new chains to the town seemed the most promising approach to achieving a town centre with its own special character and vibrancy.
- A town directory similar to those that are found in shopping centres (which list products and then identify the stores that have the products) was identified as a small project that could bring benefit to both retailers and consumers and this idea will be shared with the BID team. To support the meeting Transition Town had produced a list of retailers and categorised them by type of products supplied.
- If areas of the town centre are to be developed (which the local plan allows for) participants felt that circular routes of retail units should be developed which encompass the Wynd and Arcade. There is a sense that the town centre is fragmented and if you come to an area without shops there is no incentive to return to the shopping area. Shops that draw footfall are needed in the Arcade and Wynd. The experience of walking out of the train station should also be considered in any strategy.
- It was recognised that as the trees are starting to grow the town centre is becoming more what we would expect from a Garden City, but more effort on year round planting and improving external appearance of shops could make it a more inviting place to spend time. For example, the Wynd with its community garden should have an inviting ‘green entrance’ from adjoining streets.
- Comments were made that people visit to pick up specific items but don’t linger to explore other shops like they do in Hitchin. Ways to incentive people to come and do more than one activity in the town centre could be beneficial and a loyalty scheme was mentioned. Those that visit coffee shops need to be enticed to then visit other retailers.
- The possibility of the outer edges of the existing shopping centre being re-developed (e.g. Leys Avenue below the Wynd) so they provide leisure / retail space but also have attractive residential property and green spaces was favourably received. Having nice quality residential properties would hopefully give these areas of the town, which can seem quiet, more vibrancy throughout the day and evening. Co-working spaces in the town centre were suggested as this could help bring people into the town centre.
- Community ventures such as craft breweries, local bakeries and locally grown produce shops were mentioned in the presentation. This inspired some discussion on possible community ventures such as refurbishing bikes and helping people to undertake DIY, electronics, CDT and craft. The co-operative Art Gallery in the Wynd was mentioned. A shop selling local food provided by farm and allotment holders was also suggested.
- It was noted that there is a Letchworth Garden City ethos of encouraging creativity, individuality and valuing Arts and Crafts that should be built upon. Artisan Ladder recently showed the creativity of local artists and this could be extended by having spaces where artists can be seen creating artwork. Art activity brings community and mental health benefits (see People United) and town centre art establishments would have outreach possibilities supporting local communities.
- Letchworth population has a demographic of young families and older people so any experience / activity that could bring this demographic together would be beneficial.
- There are service, leisure and retail providers with synergy in the town but they are not promoted as a group and are often located some distance apart. Clusters of businesses with synergy need to be identified and promoted together as a Letchworth asset. The presentation included a list of leisure activities some of which were a surprise to the audience. There is good promotion of community groups and their activities but it appears there is an opportunity to promote businesses with a leisure offering (e.g. karting, shooting, laser tag).
- The recent LDC Retail and Leisure trends report identified that 37% of all offline sale are influenced by digital information so online presence is important (even if online sales are not offered). However, nationally 40% of retailers have no website and 74% have no social media presence. Attendees who were involved in helping shops develop the most appropriate online presence had ideas to share and this important statistic was something the BID could look to address.
- During the evening existing assets which are attractors to the town were mentioned. These included Davids, Broadway Cinema and Theatre, the Christian Bookshop and Haberdashery shops. The greenway was identified as an asset that would benefit from a few more facilities (cafes / toilets / bike fixing station).
- Broadway Gardens was identified as a space that could be better utilised but needed zebra crossings. Plinston Hall was seen as a potential community centre, with a cafe, soft play area, meeting rooms and youth club space.
- Nevilles road was identified as a problem for parking and relocation of the health centre and doctors surgery to locations with adequate parking was seen as beneficial.
- Parking was raised as concern as was the shared pedestrian / car space down Eastcheap and Leys Avenue.
The meeting provided an opportunity for people to share and explore ideas on how we want our town centre to develop. There was a sense that with the right vision we could have a resilient town centre and that the community is keen to collaborate with the various authorities in Letchworth in producing a strategy for the town centre.